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Saints, Brees going down to the wire

Sports Xchange LEN PASQUARELLI
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Even with the broken right thumb sustained this week by backup Chase Daniel, an injury that left New Orleans with only two functional quarterbacks — Luke McCown and Sean Canfield — for the final day of the club's minicamp, Saints' officials weren't exactly burning up the phone lines checking out potential training camp arms.

PRESSURE COOKER

Want to reach the Super Bowl? These players will need big seasons if their teams are going to New Orleans.

And it was only partly because the Saints expect they'll have a deal in place with "exclusive franchise" quarterback Drew Brees when they report to camp in late July.

"No, there's really no one out there better than the guys we have," said one New Orleans official. "Maybe if it gets closer to camp, we'd add a guy, but not now."

There are two key dates looming in the Brees case — June 27 and July 16 — but even in a league that principally operates with a deadline mentality, word from both sides is that there has been no substantial movement in negotiations.

On June 27, an arbitrator will hear arguments to ascertain how many times Brees has been tagged with the franchise marker — he also was designated by San Diego in 2005 — in a case that only will have bearing if the quarterback doesn't sign a long-term contract and the Saints are forced to use the franchise tag again next year. The July 16 date is the more significant of the two, because that's the deadline for signing franchise players to multiyear contracts.

After July 16, Brees is limited to a one-year contract.

The consensus from the two sides in conversations with The Sports Xchange is that nothing will be finalized until next month.

Said one person close to the talks: "I wouldn't call it acrimony, not by any means. It's more like intransigence. Both (sides) have dug in and really haven't budged a whole lot."

• Although there was a Thursday suggestion that the Seahawks and defensive end Chris Clemons are negotiating a possible extension, the report was hardly accurate.

The club did make Clemons an offer, but that was quite a while ago, and there has been no substantive dialogue since.

Unless one counts a late-week text message from agent Don Henderson to general manager John Schneider — suggesting the two men discuss Clemons' situation on Monday — as dialogue.

It's possible, if the men speak next week, that Henderson will propose an Osi Umenyiora-style upgrade of Clemons' contract for 2012 — but with more money and, clearly, more perks. Last week, Umenyiora, who was scheduled to make $3.975 million in base salary for '12, with $750,000 in bonuses, agreed to a substandard contract that elevated his compensation to $6 million.

But that's only if Umenyiora plays every game, because $750,000 of the deal is tied to prorated ($46,875 per game) appearances.

There are no bonuses in the new contract and it does not include a stipulation that the Giants can't use the franchise tag on Umenyiora next spring, when he can be a free agent.

If Clemons signed an upgraded one-year contract, and had Seattle agreed not to franchise him after the season, he would be a free agent at the age of 31.

Even at that age, though, chances are that Clemons, one of only six players in the NFL to have recorded at least 11 sacks in each of the past two seasons, probably would have some suitors in a league that values getting to the quarterback. Just a few more Clemons-related items: First, the stance by Seattle officials, who feigned surprise that Clemons wasn't at the minicamp this week, was a charade.

They were informed last week that Clemons, who had worked out in the Seattle area earlier this offseason but returned home to Atlanta frustrated at the lack of progress on his contract and skipped the OTAs, would not be present.

Second, while it's probably not a point that will sell well, it is notable that Clemons, who has started all 34 games (including playoffs) in Seattle in two seasons, never has negotiated a contract with the Seahawks.

His five-year, $12.6 million contract, entering its final season, was signed with Philadelphia as a free agent in 2008. In what has turned out to be a heist for Seattle, the Eagles traded Clemons and a fourth-round draft pick to the Seahawks in 2010 for end Darryl Tapp. In his two seasons in Philly, Tapp has 5 1/2 sacks, has started just three games and might not even make the team this season.

GET TOGETHER

It's back to work as NFL teams gather for OTAs. Check out all the familiar faces in different places.

• Two weeks ago in this space, the Tip Sheet cracked the code for the logjam at the top of the first round, citing so-called "offset" language for the sticky stalemate that has kept the top eight choices in the draft without contracts.

Since then, several media outlets have caught on to the reason for the lack of movement, and this week Dallas chief operating officer Stephen Jones even publicly acknowledged that the battle over offset language was holding up an accord with first-round cornerback Morris Claiborne.

But there is a part of the draft, surprisingly in the third round, where the bloc of unsigned players is even bigger. As of Thursday night, none of the top nine players selected at the opening of the third round had consummated deals. So what gives?

Well, it's not offset language this time, because such a negotiating chip is foreign to the third stanza.

Instead, agents for players in the top nine of the third round are attempting to maximize the 25-percent rule on base salaries. And the teams have balked.

Also coming into play was a contract negotiated by Denver last season for its third-rounder, linebacker Nate Irving, the third pick in the round in 2011.

Irving got a signing bonus that was pretty well slotted ($695,000), but his overall deal fell well below what the slot should have been. Each of the nine players drafted after Irving outdistanced him in terms of total compensation and per-year average, and that aberration at the No. 3 spot in the round has caused problems.

• Dovetailing nicely with a piece this week by Jason Cole of Yahoo!, which details the decreasing importance of the left tackle position at a time when quarterbacks are unloading the ball quickly, there could be notable turnover at the critical pass protection spot this season in the league.

For a variety of reasons that include retirement (Matt Light in New England), free agency defection (Buffalo's Demetress Bell) or shaky performance in 2011 (Doug Free of Dallas), there could be as many as seven new starting left tackles among the 32 teams in 2012.

That's a pretty significant turnover for a position that, over the years, has exemplified stability.

But if line coaches have been accurate with their comments from OTAs and minicamps, the projected newcomers at left tackle have progressed nicely as a group during the offseason workouts.

That's been especially true of Cowboys' second-year veteran Tyron Smith, who played right tackle in 2011 after Dallas tabbed him with the ninth overall choice in last year's draft, but who will flip with Free for 2012.

The Cowboys always suspected the former Southern Cal star was a left tackle, and now Smith seems to have reinforced that notion.

"He's taken to it so well; (he's) a natural (left tackle), the feet, the technique, everything about him," first-year line coach Bill Callahan told The Sports Xchange. "He could be special there."

• There will be camp competition for the No. 1 running back spot in as many as five places, and that's assuming franchise players Ray Rice and Matt Forte reach contract agreements, Trent Richardson isn't a holdout, Adrian Peterson is healthy, and Maurice Jones-Drew reports for camp.

"There's going to be a lot of pressure," allowed Pittsburgh's Isaac Redman, expected to replace a rehabbing Rashard Mendenhall in the Steelers' lineup, at least for the start of the season. "It's a position where guys can come out of nowhere and surprise you. So you want to take nothing for granted."

Even with the battle for starting jobs, teams figure to continue the practice of utilizing more backs to reduce the workloads of their high-profile runners.

There were just two players last season with 300 carries, the fewest since 1993.

AMERICA'S TEAM

Barack Obama welcomes the New York Giants to the White House | Photos

And Jones-Drew was the only starting back to average 20 carries per outing, again the fewest since '93. On the flip side, 19 teams had at least two backs register 100 or more attempts each, the most ever. "I don't know that it's a 'by committee' thing as much as it is a realization of the demands of the position," said BenJarvus Green-Ellis of Cincinnati, expected to split time with Bernard Scott in replacing workhorse Cedric Benson.

"It's likely you're just not going to see as many 300-carry backs anymore."

Between 2000-2010, the league averaged 8.5 backs per year with 300 or more attempts.

• Barring a dramatic and unexpected change of heart, Pittsburgh officials do not intend to reduce the one-year restricted free agent tender to wide receiver Mike Wallace on Friday.

General manager Kevin Colbert admitted as much on Thursday to local reporters.

Per the CBA, the Steelers have the right to drop the tender from its present $2.7 million to $577,500, or 110 percent of Wallace's 2011 salary of $525,000, since he has not signed the tender. As reported in this space last week, and then again by The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette earlier this week, the Steelers prefer a conciliatory stance rather than a hardball approach.

The Steelers aren't exactly thrilled privately that the three-year veteran has stayed away altogether from all offseason workouts, and team president Art Rooney II tersely noted, "He should be here," when asked about Wallace's absence from a mandatory three-day minicamp this week.

But despite a lack of movement, or even substantive discussions with agent Bus Cook, the team remains hopeful of being able to sign Wallace to a long-term contract.

At something closer to its price, of course, and not Wallace's bloated contract target.

• Defensive end Aaron Kampman was released by the Jacksonville Jaguars this week, after appearing in just 11 games (eight starts) for the club the past two seasons, and there is speculation the 10-year veteran will retire.

That might eventually be the case, but only if no one offers Kampman, who will turn 33 on Nov. 30, a chance that he finds to his liking.

And that almost certainly means a 4-3 defensive team, perhaps one with a playoff shot, and one that could afford him the opportunity to ring up 5-8 sacks at least as a situation rusher.

Kampman would like to play in 2012, and has said that he is healthy enough to contribute. Hampered by knee problems the last several years, Kampman, who signed a four-year, $24 million contract with the Jags in 2010, despite an ACL injury in Green Bay in '08, had only four sacks during his time in Jacksonville, but 54 of his 58 career sacks have come as a 4-3 end.

BLAST OFF

Demaryius Thomas is just one player ready for a breakout season in 2012.

When he played strong-side linebacker for the Packers in 2009, Kampan registered just 3.5 sacks, his fewest since he had two in his year in the league.

In the three-year stretch 2008-2010, Kampman notched 37 sacks, including a career best 15.5 in '06, while lining up at the left end slot. He's had ACL surgery on both knees, but still feels he's got something left, and is hoping some 4-3 club feels the same way.

• Agreed, this edition of the Tip Sheet is a little over-weighted toward the Pacific Northwest but, even with the lopsided nature, it's worth noting that this week's minicamp in Seattle reinforced the notion that the Seahawks' secondary might be very good in 2012.

The projected starting cornerbacks, Brandon Browner (right) and Richard Sherman (left), are each entering just their second seasons in the NFL. But Sherman, who started 10 games as a rookie, continued in minicamp to show that he has made excellent strides.

And Browner, a CFL refugee, was named to the Pro Bowl last season. Free safety Earl Thomas is already regarded as one of the best players at the position after just two seasons.

Fellow third-year veteran and strong safety Kam Chancellor isn't the greatest cover guy around, but is a physical hitter who some rumored to possibly be shifting to linebacker for 2012.

"A very talented, young group ... and one that is growing up together," said nine-year veteran corner Marcus Trufant, who probably will play the nickel spot after appearing in a career low four games last season because of a back injury. "If they stay together, they're going to do some great things." The Seahawks statistically ranked 11th versus the pass in 2011, and allowed the sixth-lowest opponent quarterback rating (74.8) and the second-fewest completions of 20 yards or more (43).

• With so many teams seeking No. 3 and No. 4 safeties who can play special teams, and at bargain basement prices, there's still some mystery about why seven-year pro Chris Harris is still looking for a job and can't get a nibble at this point.

Harris, 29, has 88 starts on his resume, and 16 interceptions, including three seasons with three or more pickoffs.

Granted, Harris is arguably better versus the run and as a big hitter — the former Louisiana-Monroe standout led the NFL with eight forced fumbles in 2007, setting a Carolina franchise record — but one would think someone would call with a veteran minimum-level deal before camp begins.

That's what Harris thinks, too, but the phone isn't ringing yet.

Tagged: Bengals, Cowboys, Broncos, Lions, Saints, Giants, Eagles, Seahawks, Jaguars, Ravens, Steelers, Drew Brees, Aaron Kampman, Osi Umenyiora, Chris Clemons, Chris Harris, Doug Free, Ray Rice, Mike Wallace, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Nate Irving, Richard Sherman

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