Purdue spring practice preview

Back from my duties at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, we return our attention to spring football in the college ranks. On Wednesday, Purdue opens practice in preparation for the 2011 season following a year in which Danny Hope’s squad was decimated by injuries, as the team’s starters at quarterback and running back, as well as its best wide receiver, were lost for the season.

Let’s take a look at some of the key storylines for Purdue entering spring camp.

Purdue (4-8, 2-6 Big Ten)

The quarterback situation

Rob HenryICONRob Henry's run skills gave the Purdue offense a different dimension last season.

With Robert Marve still rehabbing his knee following a second ACL surgery, the former Miami signal-caller will be limited to seven-on-seven drills this spring. But even when Marve returns to full health, offensive coordinator Gary Nord plans on Rob Henry being atop the depth chart for the foreseeable future. The rising sophomore started six games last season and showed promise as an elusive runner before suffering a hand injury, which is not quite 100 percent but will not limit him this spring. The 6-2, 198-pounder won his first two career starts, including an upset win at Northwestern, and finished the season as the team’s rushing leader with 547 yards and four touchdowns. But through the air, Henry completed just 53.1 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns against seven interceptions. He was also prone to escaping the pocket when his initial read wasn’t there, relying on his running skills a little too often.

Marve, who started the first four games last season, could ultimately work his way back into the mix because he is a talented signal-caller, but the coaching staff can’t count on him because of his injury history. Meanwhile, Sean Robinson and Caleb TerBush will battle for No. 2 reps. Robinson saw action after Henry hurt his hand while TerBush has impressed in practice but appeared in only one career game (in 2009) because of academic issues last season.

The rushing attack

Purdue loses both Dan Dierking and Keith Carlos from the backfield, but the hope is that Ralph Bolden will be able to carry the load at running back after coming off of ACL surgery. Bolden was supposed to be one of the main ball carriers last season before his injury left the Boilers in a bind. Dierking ended up rushing for over 500 yards after being a non-factor his first three seasons, and Al-Terek McBurse missed two games with a toe injury before sliding down the depth chart. The staff planned to move McBurse to receiver but Hope told The (Lafayette) Journal and Courier that he isn’t expected to return to the team for the 2011 season.

Getting the expected production from a healthy Bolden will be huge for the Boilermakers. The 5-9, 194-pounder logged 935 yards and nine scores on the ground in 2009 and was adept at catching the ball out of the backfield, as well. If Henry remains atop the depth chart at quarterback, having an experienced rusher to take pressure off of the young signal-caller will be huge for this offense. The offensive line played beyond expectations, especially considering that Purdue finished fifth in the league in rushing despite dealing with so many injuries.

Can the defense continue to improve?

The knock on the Boilermakers for so many years has been that their defense has not been able to help out the offense enough to make the team a consistent upper-echelon Big Ten squad. But this unit seems to be improving, and a secondary that featured four new starters played well in 2010. Cornerback Ricardo Allen is a rising sophomore who offenses must be aware of at all times, and the run defense was much improved. The unit played much more physical, and it led the conference in both sacks and tackles for loss. Purdue returns nine defensive starters, but Big Ten defensive player of the year Ryan Kerrigan will move onto the NFL. He was the biggest factor in the team’s overall sacks and tackles for loss numbers. Who will emerge and help pick up the slack?

Will Keith Smith get a sixth year?

Keith SmithICONWill receiver Keith Smith be returning to school for a sixth season?

There is still no word yet from the NCAA on whether wide receiver Keith Smith will get a sixth year of eligibility. The former All-Big Ten performer appeared in only two games last season before suffering an ACL/MCL tear in his right knee. Purdue submitted the paperwork in November but has yet to hear a decision from the governing body. The oddest part of this whole situation is that Smith is participating in the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis while he continues to recover from his injury and await word from the NCAA. Smith can participate in combine activities and still retain his eligibility as long as he stays at the combine for no more than 48 hours. He also isn’t allowed to keep any clothing or merchandise, and he isn’t permitted to miss any classes to participate, either. If Smith is granted an extra year and he is close to 100 percent in the fall, he can really help the Boilermakers offense.

UPDATE: On Monday afternoon, the NCAA announced that it had denied Smith’s request for a sixth year of eligibility.

Injury notes

In addition to Marve being limited (he’ll throw individual routes with receivers) and Smith continuing to work his way back (if granted a sixth year), Bolden will only be allowed to run behind the line without anybody tackling him.

The following is a list of players also expected to be limited or not participate in spring practice because of injuries: defensive back Charlton Williams, defensive tackle Brandon Taylor, wide receiver T.J. Barbarette, offensive lineman Trevor Foy, safety Chris Quinn, linebacker Kakpindi Jamiru, kicker Jonathan Linkenheimer and defensive tackle Kevin Pamphile.

Purdue’s spring game will take place on April 9.

Email dave.miller@nationalfootballpost.com or follow me on Twitter at Miller_Dave

Will Iowa produce two first-round picks?

When we talk about first round talent coming out of Iowa City this year, the discussion tends to lean towards DE Adrian Clayborn. There is no question there. The former Hawkeye ran in the low 4.8s in the 40-yard dash (unoffical) this morning. He has quick hands and his lateral ability—plus explosive power—are evident in workouts and on game tape.

Christain BallardICONIowa's Christian Ballard could come off of the board in the late first-round.

Clayborn is a legit first-round talent and I do see him as a fit for Gregg Williams’’ defensive scheme down in New Orleans. And he might get taken off the board earlier than that.

But don’t forget about the Hawkeyes’ Christian Ballard. A D-Lineman that can play in the 3-4 front as a 5-technique, or play inside as a 3-technique in the 4-3 scheme. Think of the Jets or Packers in the 3-4 defense, or the Bears with Ballard sliding inside and playing that 1-gap style in Lovie Smith’s 4-3 front.

I talked to an NFL GM over the weekend in Indy that said Ballard could find himself in the late first round with an impressive workout—exactly what we watched this morning at the combine (unoffical low 4.7s in the 40). Solid for a defensive prospect that can play around 290-300 pounds.

Watching Ballard practice down in Mobile at the Senior Bowl, he stood out. Even though the Iowa product can get too high out of his initial stance, his overall athletic ability is hard to ignore when he attacks the edge of an offensive guard or tackle—because he can get up the field. Speed is on display. Everyone can see that.

There was some good buzz over the weekend in Indy on both Clayborn and Ballard, and Iowa just might put two defensive lineman in the first round of the NFL draft this April once the process begins to play out. Let’s see what happens.

Follow me on Twitter: MattBowen41

The (CBA) end is near: a primer

It has now come down to this week in the two-year attempt to extend the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) before it expires Thursday night at midnight. Let’s answer some questions about the days ahead.

What is the first key time this week in the last attempt to negotiate and agreement?

On Tuesday the two sides will reconvene after a three-day break from seven consecutive days of bargaining under the watchful eye of mediator George Cohen, and they will see if they can advance the ball.

The first few moments of that meeting will foretell a lot. If the sides come back to say that they have caucused and are willing to be flexible on one or more of the core issues, then we have a chance for a CBA, even by Friday. However, if the parties come back still entrenched in their positions, hopes are dashed and the seven days of mediation may have been for naught.

We will know early in the day tomorrow if progress can be made or we are back to the morass of divergence.

Why can’t this deal get done?

Neither side is budging. Both sides are sufficiently frustrated with the tactics from their adversary that they simply will not move towards center.

The NFL asks why should it make a better offer when the union (1) threatens decertification; (2) parades through the halls of Congress and (3) challenges ownership on its negotiation of its broadcast contracts and accuses them of collusion.

The NFLPA asks itself why it should make a better offer when the owners (1)talk down to the players, (2) threaten to lock them out and cut off their benefits and (2) refuse to show them detailed accounting from each team to back up their claims of financial challenges.

With bargaining stunted by lack of trust and downright dislike in some cases, this negotiation appears to be on a bridge to nowhere. I thought mediation was potential answer, but perhaps not.

What happens if no decertification and no agreement by Thursday night?

All indications are that the NFL teams will cease to do business with its labor force, the players. There will be no contact with them, no benefits attaching to them, no bonuses or salaries paid to them, and the doors to the facilities will be locked to them.

Jerry RichardsonICONRichardson is intent on a new system.

Why would the NFL do that?

Owners — some more than others — are determined to forge a new economic system with the players, using the lockout as leverage to negotiate improved terms from the existing CBA.

What is the NFL’s big issue they want to address?

NFL owners are not claiming losses; they are claiming that they are on the path to a problematic future. They argue that player costs are outpacing incremental team revenues, with the potential for a downward spiral.

The owners have a chance to correct the problem now, having opted out of a deal that was supposed to end in 2013 two years early.

What does the union want?

We think they want status quo plus some other issues addressed, such as:

  • Better health benefits and post career coverage beyond the existing five years;
  • An independent appeals process for Commissioner discipline for conduct and drugs;
  • More revenue sharing among ownership with the allotment funneled to the players.

Does the union’s decertification strategy have legs?

It is part of a plan hatched in August with the NFLPA Decertification Tour 2010, when the union got authorization from each team to take this step. Now they have bared this ammunition again to try to shift the leverage.

The fact that NFL owners took a preemptive strike a week on this issue –filing an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB to have decertification ruled a “sham” – tells me that the decertification option scares them.

I do believe this: were the union to go down this path, any goodwill and relationship building with the NFL will be flushed down the drain. If litigation is the way they want to fight, the NFL has plenty of litigators on call. They will fight, delay and appeal the battle at least through the fall, counting on player solidarity in March to fade into the distance by September when the real money starts going in.

Decertification has some potential reward for the union but also high risk. With the late Gene Upshaw leading the charge twenty years ago, it was seen as innovative. Were DeMaurice Smith to repeat it, it would be seen as a legal strategy trying to duplicate the past.

Any hope for a negotiated settlement by Friday?

I have been that voice in the wilderness holding out optimism for that to happen, mainly because I feel that after Friday there will be little incentive to negotiate for a while.

My hope is that the deadline will cause each side to show more or all of their cards. Having done player contracts for twenty years, from both sides of the table, I know that neither side puts its best offer on the table until it absolutely has to. The question for which I do not know the answer is whether Friday is that true deadline or not.

Will Peyton Manning have a contract by the deadline?

This may be more likely than a CBA. Both Manning and the Colts know he will have the most lucrative contract in the history of the NFL; the question is only by how much. Manning has extraordinary leverage, with or without an expiring CBA.

What is the key time for whether we have a CBA?

Thursday night. At some point on Thursday in Washington, Commissioner Goodell will look his owners in the eye and ask whether they want to lock the players out. And at some point Thursday DeMaurice Smith – also in Washington — will address his union leadership and get their vote on whether to decertify and cease to be a union.

These topics have been easy to talk about for two years. Actually putting a stake in the ground and doing it is a different animal.

Welcome to a week like no other in the NFL. The stakes are raised; let’s see how this plays out now that the time for talk is over.

Follow me on Twitter at adbrandt.

Four-down territory: Where's the love for T-Magic?

Remember when Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez was the talk of the college football world following his dominant Thursday night performance at Kansas State in early October last season? Well, with new coordinator Tim Beck implementing a new spread offense following the dismissal of former OC Shawn Watson, the talk coming out of Lincoln is that the dual-threat signal-caller is no sure thing to start the team’s first game as a member of the Big Ten next fall.

Taylor MartinezICONHas Cornhusker Nation cooled on “T-Magic?”

There’s no question Martinez struggled after dealing with a midseason ankle injury, but he wasn’t the only Cornhusker who played poorly down the stretch. The offensive line allowed an incredible 25 tackles for loss the last two games, and Watson didn’t always put his playmakers in position to succeed. “T-Magic” is still the same player, when healthy, who nearly became the third freshman quarterback in NCAA history to rush for 1,000 yards. The freshman All-American will get competition from redshirt freshman Brion Carnes and incoming freshman Jamal Turner because they are more suited to play in the spread, but it’d be shocking if Martinez wasn’t under center for the regular-season opener against Tennessee-Chattanooga at Memorial Stadium the first week of September. Now, if top baseball prospect Bubba Starling decides to come to Lincoln despite being a likely first-round pick in June's Major League Baseball draft, then Martinez may want to start worrying…

Baylor ended the 2010 season on a four-game losing streak, souring the momentum head coach Art Briles had built throughout the early portion of the season as the team allowed 188 points and 2,147 total yards in the four season-closing setbacks. While the Bears must play better defense down the stretch to avoid another letdown, finding a running back to complement quarterback Robert Griffin III will be another top priority as the team begins spring practice.

The race to replace Jay Finley, who ran for a Bears record 1,218 yards in 2010, will feature Terrance Ganaway, Jarred Salubi, Glasco Martin and Isaac Williams. These four backs will begin the battle for reps starting on Monday. Ganaway is a rising senior who had 46 carries last season, while rising junior Salubi averaged eight yards per carry in limited opportunities last fall. Martin could be intriguing because the rising sophomore is a converted receiver. The Bears also signed three running backs from the Class of 2011 — Jermichael Selders, Anthony Webb and B.J. Allen.

Penn State quarterback Rob Bolden sought a transfer shortly after the 2010 season but was denied by head coach Joe Paterno. Well, just when it looked as if the rising sophomore was staying put at State College, the former starter told FightOnState.com that he isn’t so certain. “There is no definite answer on if I'm gonna stay or if I'm gonna leave,” Bolden said Sunday. “We're just gonna wait it out, see what happens in the spring and go from there.” It would seem that Bolden wants to see how the reps are split in spring and how he fares in the battle with starter Matt McGloin, who threw five interceptions in the bowl loss to Florida, and redshirt freshman Paul Jones. If he doesn't win the job, would he pursue a transfer once again?

Oklahoma is one of the popular picks to emerge as the national champion next season, but the Sooners will only be able to remain near the top of the polls if the defense plays more consistent. So who’s the next standout Sooners hybrid linebacker primed to become a household name? Like current Philadelphia Eagle Keenan Clayton, who played safety in high school before being developed into a linebacker in Norman, rising sophomore Tony Jefferson is next in line to assume the position. OU’s top recruit last season, Jefferson started at safety at Eastlake High in California before playing a little corner for the Sooners last season. But look for him to add weight to his 6-foot frame this spring in preparation for his new role. Class of 2011 safety recruit Franklin Shannon could also be a hybrid defender, but he may be a full year away before having quite the impact.

Email dave.miller@nationalfootballpost.com or follow me on Twitter at Miller_Dave

Unofficially, Fairley tops Dareus in the 40

INDIANAPOLIS—The big boys on the dark side of the football are making some unofficial noise at Lucas Oil Stadium Monday morning.

Gone are the days of multiple 5.1 and 5.2 times in the 40-yard dash, as the first group of defensive linemen to hit the field flashed some legitimate speed.

In the marquee matchup of the morning, former Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley posted unofficial 40 times of 4.86 and 4.82 to beat out his main competition at the position in Alabama’s Marcell Dareus, who turned in times of 4.94 and 4.92.

Some of the other notable 40 times from the first group of defensive linemen include:

Marvin Austin, DT, North Carolina: 4.8 and 4.86
Allen Bailey, DT, Miami: 4.77 and 4.76
Christian Ballard, DE, Iowa: 4.7 and 4.75
Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa: 4.81 and 4.82
Cam Jordan, DE, California: 4.71 and 4.74
Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue: 4.67 and 4.73
Corey Liuget, DT, Illinois: 4.95 and 5.06

Hit me up on Twitter: @JoeFortenbaugh

QB guru George Whitfield wants to work with Jay Cutler

Noted quarterbacks guru George Whitfield Jr. has been working with Cam Newton in preparing the Auburn Hesiman Trophy winner for the NFL.

Whitfield would like to do some work with another quarterback he says is in need of some refinement – Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler.

“I never met Jay, but I would love to,” Whitfield told Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune. “Jay is arguably the most naturally gifted quarterback on the planet, maybe the most gifted since (John) Elway. It's just a matter of fine-tuning, getting himself consistent. But he's beating defenses because he's making throws that no one else in the world can make.

“If mechanics were clothing, then (Tom) Brady and (Peyton) Manning wear three-piece suits. Cutler? He's in khakis and a Polo, at best. If he ever stitches together a suit, he's going to be a juggernaut. You can coach the gifts he wakes up with in the morning.”

Of course, Mike Martz, the Bears offensive coordinator, scoffed at the idea, saying he is Cutler’s quarterbacks coach on a year-round basis. Whitfield worked with Ben Roethlisberger during his four-game suspension last season. He does have experience tutoring NFL players. The guess here is it’s not going to happen. But if it does?

“If Jay reached out to me, let's go. I'll give him a room in my house in Del Mar (San Diego County),” Whitfield said. “The weather would be nice and conducive.”

Follow me on Twitter: @BradBiggs

Brad Biggs covers the Bears for the Chicago Tribune

Ramses Barden requires second procedure on leg

Ramses Barden will require a second procedure to “clean out his leg” this week as the New York Giants wide receiver still works to recover from a broken ankle and ligament damage suffered during November.

According to Mike Garafolo of the Newark Star-Ledger, Barden has swelling in the leg and the cleanout should help clear that up. General manager Jerry Reese told Garafolo the situation is not cause for concern and Barden remains on the right path.

A minor surgery this week, though, wasn’t in the plans so it’s not like he’s on schedule. Fortunately, he’s got plenty of time to heal. He’ll need to continue the rehab on his own if the NFL locks out the players later this week as many expect.

Follow me on Twitter: @BradBiggs

Brad Biggs covers the Bears for the Chicago Tribune

Sidney Rice will test free-agent market

If Sidney Rice returns to the Minnesota Vikings, first he’s going to pass “Go” and he’ll collect far more than $200.

Rice will enter free agency before he makes any decisions on his future. Agent Drew Rosenhaus told ESPN that the wide receiver will not sign with the Vikings before at least exploring what else is available.

Rice has only four years of service and therefore there is no guarantee he will be unrestricted, but that is the expectation. Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier announced that the team had made a long-term offer to Rice. Now, Rice has made it known he will eventually field offers from other teams whenever free agency begins. The question is how much will someone be willing to pay him? Rice had a monster season in 2009 with Brett Favre. He’s coming off hip surgery and his other three seasons were not anything special.

“(Rice) is a high, high priority, and I didn't want him to be sensitive about the fact that it was Chad being franchised instead of Sidney,” Frazier said. “That does not mean that we're not going to do right by Sidney, but we couldn't franchise both of them. We want to get Sidney signed and take care of him, because he's going to take care of our football team.”

The Vikings exercised their franchise tag on linebacker Chad Greenway.

Follow me on Twitter: @BradBiggs

Brad Biggs covers the Bears for the Chicago Tribune

Report: Jeff Fisher to remain involved on competition committee

Need a good sign Jeff Fisher plans to be back on an NFL sideline in 2012?

The longtime Tennessee Titans coach, who split from the club in late January, will remain on the prestigious NFL Competition Committee as a consultant.

“I wanted to have an opportunity to stay involved,'' Fisher told Jim Wyatt of the Tennessean. “I am very close with all the members on the committee and the support staff. You can imagine the time we've spent together over the years, it's almost been like a second job. To be able to continue to participate, it is exciting to me.''

The competition committee is the group that suggests rule changes for the game and for a long period Fisher co-chaired it with Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay. Fisher will be a non-voting member of the committee, but he’s obviously influential and respected in the room.

Follow me on Twitter: @BradBiggs

Brad Biggs covers the Bears for the Chicago Tribune

Big backs do just fine in their workouts

It does not project to be a great year for running backs in the draft, but some will tell you that doesn’t matter after the great success some undrafted backs had this past season.

Still, Alabama’s Mark Ingram, the top-ranked running back by the NFP’s Wes Bunting, had a decent workout Sunday at the combine when he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.62 seconds.

No one expected Ingram to burn it up and he didn’t. He’s not that type of runner. Remember, LeGarrette Blount was knocked for running in the 4.7’s a year ago. Those who held that against him probably wish they had taken the chance the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did.

There are some other intriguing big backs in the draft like Ingram. Illinois’ Mikel Leshoure ran a sub-4.6 40. He doesn’t have the college production that Ingram did, but he’s a potential first-round selection. A back that helped himself was Nebraska’s Roy Helu Jr. He timed at 4.42. He is 5-11, 219 pounds and while he entered the combine with most expecting him to be a mid-round selection, he helped himself greatly.

Follow me on Twitter: @BradBiggs

Brad Biggs covers the Bears for the Chicago Tribune