22 February 2009

The Rock's Open Letter To Eli Manning

Former UM star Bibla looking for an opportunity

Martin Bibla stood out among the football players auditioning for NFL scouts at the University of Miami on Friday. Not just because he is the size of an armoire but because he is older than the rest.

Wiser, too. As a former employee of the Atlanta Falcons and Denver Broncos, Bibla, 29, has no illusions about the NFL.

''You are a piece of meat,'' he said. ``You are a bit of data.''

Yet Bibla still dreams, as do the UM seniors who ran forward and backward and sideways for the scouts who watched dispassionately, clicked stopwatches and jotted notes.

This wasn't your typical interview, given the abundance of sweat and lack of neckties, but then playing football isn't your typical job. Timing Day at UM is a predraft measurement of athletes' speed. It's strictly about numbers, and not those clichés about character and determination.

''This is for all the marbles,'' Bibla said. ``You don't get a second look.''

Yet he's hoping for a second chance. Cut by Denver in 2006, Bibla starred two years for the Philadelphia Soul of the Arena Football League -- Jon Bon Jovi's team. Then the ''football in a phone booth'' league ran out of money and suspended the 2009 season. Bibla, an offensive lineman, isn't ready to hang up his helmet.

''I'm here to let the NFL know I still exist,'' he said. ``I want my name on their lips. With me, they get great value, great depth on the O-line.''

Bibla, who is 6-3 and 325 pounds, ran the 40-yard dash (5.5 seconds), the short shuttle and the L drill. He did the same things on the same field in 2002, when he was a UM senior coming off a national championship season and a stellar college career during which he did not allow a sack. He was part of a great line (Bryant McKinnie, Brett Romberg, Joaquin Gonzalez, Sherko Haji-Rasouli) and a great team. Eleven Hurricanes were drafted that spring, five in the first round, Bibla in the fourth. It's lean times for UM now, with only Bruce Johnson expected to be drafted, and not early.

Bibla was back where he started, and he could almost hear former coaches Art Kehoe, Butch Davis and Larry Coker yelling. He didn't want to trample the green optimism of the seniors, but if he could give them a few words of advice, it would be: ``They don't call it the Not For Long league for nothing.''

Although Friday was about split seconds, the NFL is not always a meritocracy. It also is an old-boys' club. It's a cruel way to make a living. And a euphoric way to make a lot of money. Those are the conflicting lessons Bibla learned. He's jaded but mesmerized by the NFL. He's giving it one more shot.

''As an NFL player, you feel you have the world in the palm of your hand. Guys let that go to their heads,'' Bibla said. ``You are treated like royalty. That's what I miss.

``When you're out you realize how stressful it was. Your job is on the line every time you step on the field. Put together a string of mediocre plays and you have a bad day. Do that more than once and you're off the team. Word floats around and all of a sudden you're a has-been.''
Bibla was a starter by his second season in Atlanta, but a new coach was hired and changed the depth chart. Then Bibla broke his ankle on kickoff coverage. In Denver, he got cut because of a salary-cap decision.

''It's 50 percent talent, 50 percent luck, placement, politics, who you know,'' he said.

Each play was graded at UM; Kehoe had a WTF grade, which translates to What The (expletive) for a botched assignment. The critiques in the NFL were more detailed and brutal.

In Bibla's first game as a starter, he had to protect Michael Vick from Warren Sapp. Bibla shut Sapp down. Praise from the coach?
'He said, `I hope that wasn't a fluke,' '' Bibla said.

The pressure to perform daily was so intense that Bibla used to watch cartoons on the DVD player in his truck on the way to work, ``just to empty my mind.''

The nice thing about the Arena league and its pro wrestling flavor was that ''you could enjoy playing again,'' Bibla said. ``We flew coach, but we didn't have to worry about being replaced.''

Bibla didn't entertain NFL fantasies as a child in Mountaintop, Pa., where his Russian father Stanley and Polish mother Barbara ran the 20-unit Crestwood Motel and Bar. Bibla, who speaks his parents' languages fluently, was a fat kid who could be found in front of the TV eating a cheeseburger. When he was in 10th grade, his dad forced him to play football. Forced him as in ''he beat me,'' Bibla said. ``And when I tried to quit, my brother beat me.''

He played for an 0-10 team but got a scholarship to UM. He still lives in Mountaintop, with wife Anna, an occupational therapist, and sons Magnus, Lincoln and Mariusz.

Bibla felt fast Friday, back under the Miami sun. He can bench press 500 pounds, power clean 385 -- he's stronger than ever.
He's hoping an NFL team will contact him, but if not, he's thinking about the World's Strongest Man competition or becoming a police officer or firefighter.

''I'm more realistic than I was seven years ago,'' he said. ``It's a cattle call. But it's still the NFL.''


Taylor Trial Is Postponed

The trial involving the shooting death of Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor was again postponed yesterday when defense attorneys asked a Miami state court judge for more time to interview witnesses.

Circuit Court Judge Dennis J. Murphy granted the request and put off setting a new trial date until June 9, when he requested reports from the defense on their progress on discovery. Originally scheduled to go to trial last August, the trial date had been reset for March 9.

Eric Rivera Jr., 18; Jason Scott Mitchell, 21; Charles Kendrick Lee Wardlow, 19; and Timmy Lee Brown, 17; face first-degree murder and armed burglary charges in connection with Taylor's death. Taylor died days after Thanksgiving in 2007 after being shot in his Miami home during a botched burglary attempt.

One original defendant, Venjah K. Hunte, 21, pleaded guilty last year and is expected to testify during the trial.


Source: Saints lock up Vilma

The New Orleans Saints signed middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma to a five-year, $34 million deal that included $17 million in guarantees, according to a souce.

The Tampa Bay Bucaneers had been trying to lure Vilma out of New Orleans after the start of free agency Friday morning. The Saints faxed a contract extension offer Friday morning and talks heated up all day Friday.

Vilma became a free agent after his first season in New Orleans. He led the Saints with 151 tackles and three forced fumbles and added a sack and an interception.

Vilma played his first four NFL seasons with the New York Jets before the Saints acquired him in a trade. The former Miami standout was the NFL's Defensive rookie of the year in 2004. A knee injury cost Vilma the last nine weeks of 2007, but he played all 16 games for the Saints last season.

Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said re-signing Vilma was the team's priority during the offseason.

"Jonathan proved he could come back from his injury and play at a high level and we expect the same or better from him starting this season," Loomis said in a statement.

Vilma was arrested last month during a traffic stop in Miami on charges that included resisting arrest and obstruction of justice, but prosecutors agreed this week to drop the charges after he agreed to give to charity and clear up outstanding tickets.


Winslow traded to Bucs for draft picks

CLEVELAND -- The spectacular moments were too few. The headaches, too many. Kellen Winslow's five-year run with the Cleveland Browns, a succession of stops, starts and setbacks, is finally over.

Cleveland traded the talented and troublesome former Pro Bowl tight end to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Friday in exchange for undisclosed draft picks new coach Eric Mangini can use to begin rebuilding the disappointing Browns following a calamitous 2008 season.

The Browns received a second-round pick this year and a fifth-round selection in 2010 for Winslow, whose stay in Cleveland was marked by brilliance, injuries and controversy.

An All-American at Miami, where his infamous postgame "I'm a soldier" rant shaped outside opinion of him, Winslow missed most of his first two NFL seasons with injuries. He nearly killed himself in a motorcycle accident, but came back and showed flashes of fulfilling his Hall of Fame pedigree.

Winslow squabbled with Cleveland's front office this past season. He was almost always hurt, but he almost always played.

Back in Florida, he's ready for a new beginning.

"Cleveland was great to me," he said in Tampa. "I had a great time playing with Braylon Edwards, Brady Quinn. I'm going to miss those guys. But it's also a new opportunity. I've played with some of the guys on this team -- Jeff Faine, Antonio Bryant, Luke McCown. I'm as happy as can be. I'm healthy."

Winslow will be reunited in Tampa with Alfredo Roberts, his tights ends coach in Cleveland the past two seasons.

With the Browns, Winslow had 219 catches for 2,459 yards and 11 touchdowns. He matched Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome's club record with 89 receptions in 2006 and made 82 in 2007, earning him a Pro Bowl spot. He played in 44 games, but he missed 36 because of injuries.

There had been speculation that Cleveland's new management team of Mangini and general manager George Kokinis would deal Winslow for draft picks -- the Browns only had four in the '09 draft before the deal -- so it was not completely surprising they cut ties with the 25-year-old in a blockbuster move on the first day of free agency.

"The Cleveland Browns thank Kellen for his contributions to this organization over the past five years," Kokinis said in a statement. "We appreciate his passion for the game and wish him success in Tampa Bay. The draft picks we have obtained through this deal will give us greater flexibility as we look to infuse more talent and create competition and depth on this football team."

Winslow's acquisition continues a busy week for the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay cut linebacker Derrick Brooks, an 11-time Pro Bowler and former NFL Defensive Player of the Year; wide receivers Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard; running back Warrick Dunn; and linebacker Cato June in moves to save more than $10 million in salary cap space.

Winslow gives Tampa Bay a versatile offensive weapon. His size and speed make him difficult to defend, but it's unclear who will throw him the ball. Jeff Garcia is not expected to be re-signed, which currently leaves only Brian Griese and Luke McCown -- drafted by the Browns the same year as Winslow -- to battle it out for the starting job.

Winslow said he hasn't had a chance to speak with Tampa Bay's coaching staff about his role in the offense.

"We haven't gotten that far yet," he said. "I'm sure they'll find a way, though."

Winslow has never lacked confidence. The 6-foot-4, 250-pounder, who before his injuries and multiple knee operations could outrun most defensive backs, was arguably the most talented player on Cleveland's roster. But while he showed uncanny toughness and played through pain, Winslow was often a distraction.

The Browns traded their first-round pick in 2004 and a second rounder to Detroit to move up and select Winslow sixth overall. He broke his leg in just his second game while recovering an onsides kick and missed the remainder of his rookie season. He was rehabbing from the injury when he crashed his high-powered motorcycle while doing stunts in a parking lot.

Winslow was lucky to survive the wreck, suffering serious internal injuries and tearing a ligament in his right knee. He contracted a staph infection in the knee and had to undergo several clean-out procedures. Once healthy he produced, but following the '07 season, he hired agent Drew Rosenhaus and asked for a new contract.

The Browns appeared to be making plans for a future without Winslow when they drafted Martin Rucker in the fourth round last season.

Winslow's relationship with the team hit a low when he feuded publicly with former Cleveland GM Phil Savage in October.

Winslow was hospitalized for two days with an "undisclosed illness" and after being released he accused the club, which has had several players contract staph in recent years, of trying to hide his illness. Savage suspended him one game for making disparaging remarks about the team, but the penalty was later rescinded when it was learned that a team employee had sent Winslow e-mails urging him not to reveal the infection.
Winslow told Tampa reporters he is misunderstood.

"People don't really know me yet," he said. "Everybody makes mistakes, and the mistake I made was when I was 19 years old -- I'm 25 now- was on national television. Everybody got to see it. I stand here before you now, I think I'm a changed man."


Scott headed to Jets, Ray Lewis unhappy?

LB Bart Scott could be bound for the New York Jets. NFL.com reports that Scott, scheduled to visit the Jets today, is expected to sign a deal worth $8 million per year.

The Jets were considered a possible landing spot for LB Ray Lewis, Scott's teammate in Baltimore last season. Scott's signing could now limit Lewis' market, PFT reports.

NFL.com also reports that Lewis is unhappy with the Ravens and the slow pace of contract negotiations and may be unwilling to return to the team.


Beason underwent surgery to repair torn labrum

Steve Reed, of CarolinaGrowl.com, reports Carolina Panthers LB Jon Beason (shoulder) underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder and will be in a sling for another four weeks or so. Beason originally injured the shoulder against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 8, but he was able to play through the pain for the rest of the season. "I put my arm down to push myself up and it kind of collapsed," Beason said. "I popped it back into place and got back in the huddle. I think we were winning, 24-23, and two plays later I made an interception that led to a field goal and we won the game. It's funny how certain players can play through pain and some can't. I have values for the parts of my body. In terms of my wings - shoulder, elbows, hands - it's not negotiable. Unless it's sticking through the skin or bleeding bad, I'm staying in the game." Beason may not participate in OTAs in June, but he will "absolutely" be ready for training camp.


Salmons scores 25 in 31 minutes off bench

John Salmons came off the bench to play 31 minutes and score 25 points on 8-of-13 shooting in Friday's blowout loss to the Wizards.

Salmons also hit a couple threes and is somehow getting major run from coach Vinny Del Negro. In fact, only Derrick Rose and Ben Gordon played more minutes for the Bulls tonight.


University of Miami football seniors try to impress NFL scouts

The NFL coaches were missing Friday at Greentree Field. But the dreams of the University of Miami football players working out in front of several scouts were no different from their famous predecessors.

''Either I'm going to play at the next level or I have to take up another trade,'' said linebacker Glenn Cook, one of 17 Hurricanes seniors from last season's team to take part in UM Timing Day, a day-long combine that for years had drawn every NFL head coach. ``This is an important step to the rest of our lives.''

For the past 14 years, NFL teams have drafted at least one UM player in the first round, a record streak. But this year, only cornerback Bruce Johnson is expected to be drafted, and even that is not a lock. So for the players grinding it out Friday in front of scouts from 17 of 32 NFL teams, this day might have been their only shot to turn heads.

''They always say that we're the best group in the country, and I think we held that up [Friday],'' said Cook, who noted he ran a 5.46 in the 40-yard dash. ``You always hear that one moment can change your [future] for the bad or the good. You do one thing and it may mess up the rest of your life or it may set you up for the best. It's something we should be used to, taking advantage of each moment.''

On Friday, linebacker Spencer Adkins took advantage of that moment, according to Cook and other players. Adkins played as a reserve in the middle and as a pass rusher in third-down situations, totaling 20 tackles and four sacks in 2008.

A muscular 5-11 and 230 pounds, Adkins said he was timed in the 40 in 4.43 seconds. His vertical leap was 36 inches. His shuttle-run time was 4.25 and he had 30 bench-press repetitions at 225 pounds.

''I obviously needed to show good things or my chances would be minimum,'' said Adkins, who is from Naples. ``I look throughout the league nowadays and there are a lot of dudes who didn't get drafted and are Pro Bowlers. That's the motivation I have.

'There were a couple questions about if I liked the inside or rushing off the edge. I told them, `It doesn't matter. Whatever you want me to do I'll be able to do.' I think [Friday] opened up a lot of eyes.''

Adkins was asked if he felt it was fair that so much is put into one day's work.

''For somebody who is about to get paid a lot of money and has to do a lot of things in pressure situations, I think it is fair,'' he said.

For a couple of Canes, it must have felt extremely unfair.

Receiver Kayne Farquharson and offensive tackle Chris Rutledge sustained injuries doing drills -- Farquharson tweaked his knee during the broad jump and Rutledge injured his leg while running the 40. Both fought through the pain and completed their workouts.

Johnson, the only Cane invited to the NFL combine in Indianapolis, said he bettered his time in the 40 from 4.47 to 4.4, and increased his vertical jump from 34 to 38 ½ inches. Johnson is projected to be drafted from the fourth round down.

''I wanted to show them that I could do it here and [in Indianapolis],'' Johnson said, ``that I could be consistent. I feel I performed real well.''

Safety Anthony Reddick, who turned down an opportunity to apply for a sixth-year medical redshirt after numerous knee surgeries, said his main concern was to prove his knees were fine.

''I'm satisfied,'' said Reddick, who said he was told by scouts he ran ''a really low 4.5'' in the 40. ``I wasn't nervous. Nothing to be nervous about. I've been doing this my whole life.''


Bucs In Pursuit of Vilma

Even though the Saints are furiously trying to lure Jonathan Vilma back to New Orleans, Tampa Bay is trying to set up a free agent visit with the 6-foot-1, 230-pound linebacker. Vilma was acquired last year by the Saints in a trade with the Jets.

Vilma had a great year for the Saints, recording 132 tackles, according to NFL.com, along with two forced fumbles, one sack and one interception. Vilma has 465 tackles, 25 passes defensed, seven forced fumbles, seven interceptions and 3.5 sacks in his career. The Bucs are courting him as an outside linebacker who would play next to middle linebacker Barrett Ruud.

Vilma has only missed nine games in his five-year NFL career, those coming during the 2007 season when he suffered a knee injury. Of the 71 games he’s played in, Vilma has started 69 of those contests.


Ray Lewis could interest the Broncos?

The Baltimore Sun believes that Denver could be a more likely destination for free agent Ray Lewis than the Jets or Cowboys.

He had a strong relationship with new Broncos DC Mike Nolan when they were in Baltimore and Denver is letting incumbent MLB Nate Webster go. Lewis is thought to have turned down a three-year, $25M offer from the Ravens.


Saints fax an offer to Jon Vilma

The Saints reportedly faxed a contract proposal to LB Jonathan Vilma directly after the free agent period began.

All along Vilma has been New Orleans' priority re-signing and they don't want to lose him to the Buccaneers. Vilma will do better than Channing Crowder did. The 26-year-old led the Saints with 130 tackles last season.


The Top 25 Free Agents of 2009

5. Ray Lewis, MLB, Ravens: Coming off his 10th Pro Bowl season, Lewis continues to prove he can play at a high level. One of the most instinctive players to ever man the position, Lewis is a productive sideline-to-sideline linebacker with an unrivaled penchant for playmaking. Although history would suggest it is a bad idea to ink an aging linebacker to a big-money deal, Lewis' intangibles and leadership skills will prompt several teams to consider overpaying for the future Hall of Famer.

12. Jonathan Vilma, LB, Saints: The active playmaker enters the market after re-establishing himself as one of the top inside linebackers in the game. Vilma's instincts are superb, and his knack for slipping under blocks allows him to gobble up running backs at a prolific rate. Though some teams will be turned off by his lack of size (6-foot-1, 230), Vilma's overall skills and productivity has him high on many free-agent boards.


Bucs gearing up for a run at Jonathan Vilma?

The St. Petersburg Times is getting "strong indications" of the Bucs' interest in free agent LB Jonathan Vilma.

The Saints want to re-sign Vilma as the centerpiece of Gregg Williams' new defense, but they can't seal the deal until the start of free agency without giving up their first round pick. The Bucs could swoop in and make him a key piece in their own rebuilding defense, but he would have to move to the weak side with Barrett Ruud established in the middle.


Ray Lewis doesn't need Dallas or New York, he's already a star

For Ray Lewis, the tempting move is to sign with the Cowboys or Jets. The right move is to re-sign with the Ravens.

Unless Lewis signs a new deal with the Ravens before free agency begins at 12:01 a.m. Friday, we will see if the Cowboys are serious about courting Lewis, a future Hall of Famer who is an icon in Baltimore. You cannot blame Lewis for considering all options. But sometimes, the best moves in life are the ones you never make.

Lewis is playing for a team that just reached the AFC championship game. Stay out of the drama in Dallas, Ray. Send your pal Rex Ryan a good luck card, but jettison any thought of joining the Jets. Make the best deal you can with the Ravens. Finish your career in Baltimore and retire in the place where you built your legacy.

When you have played with one team for so long, switching teams late in your career is risky business. Ask Brett Favre. Ask Zach Thomas. Ask Jason Taylor.

I could see Lewis leaving the Ravens if they stunk or if they insulted him with their contract offer. But listening to Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome this weekend at the NFL Scouting Combine, it sounds as if the Ravens have been negotiating sincerely with Lewis and that owner Steve Bisciotti wants Lewis back.

"He has a very good relationship with Coach (John) Harbaugh, you know of his relationship with Steve and he and I have a very good relationship," Newsome said. "I think he realizes where our football team is, that we have Joe (Flacco) and that we can contend in our division and in our conference to try to get him to another Super Bowl. Those things are in place. But economics always plays a big part of it."

The thought of Lewis playing linebacker in a Cowboys uniform is intriguing, not only on the field but in the locker room. The Cowboys need a policeman to control their prima donnas. Lewis could be that guy. When Lewis speaks, teammates listen. Even opponents who don't listen to their own teammates-- like Chad Johnson of the Bengals--listen to Lewis.

"He's a great mentor to not only the other young linebackers, but some of the young offensive players," Newsome said. "I think he did a great job of helping out our quarterback and Ray Rice. So he has value that goes beyond his production on the football field."

I still remember Lewis looking me squarely in the eyes during training camp last summer, insisting the Ravens would be good. I thought the heat was getting to him. Besides, sometimes I refrain from telling men who benchpress 300 pounds that I think they are dead wrong. So I smiled, nodded my head, then watched in surprise all season as the Ravens made the playoffs and Lewis played like he was 23, not 33.

However, I still think Lewis is fooling himself if he thinks the Cowboys are close to reaching the Super Bowl. He should pop in a tape of the Cowboys' last two games, when their defense was run over by the Ravens (33-24) and by the Eagles (44-6). With a playoff spot on the line, the Cowboys came up smaller than a microchip. Against teams that made the playoffs last season, the Cowboys were 2-5.

The Cowboys have enough talent to tease Lewis, to make him think he could be the missing link. But Lewis is only guessing that he would fit in well with the Cowboys. With the Ravens, Lewis already knows he fits perfectly alongside two other defensive stars, safety Ed Reed and linebacker Terrell Suggs.

The Jets also might come after Lewis now that Ryan, the Ravens' former defensive coordinator, is the Jets' head coach.

Lewis loves Ryan, and they think alike. Asked at the Combine how long it would take the Jets' defense to be as good as the Ravens', Ryan did not mince words.

"I think next year," said Ryan. "If we bring in the kind of people we're talking about, we only need to add one or two guys. The foundation is already there." The Ravens have two other free agents the Jets might pursue--linebacker Bart Scott and safety Jim Leonhard. For those two players, leaving the Ravens makes more sense. They are younger than Lewis, and they have a lesser legacy in Baltimore.

Lewis is a different case. He is part of Baltimore's identity, like crab cakes. Not many great athletes get to play their entire career with one team anymore.

The Cowboys need Lewis more than he needs them. Lewis does not need a star on is helmet. Remaining the biggest star in Baltimore would be his best move.


Scott, Lewis vying for deal?

The Ravens and linebacker Bart Scott appear to be only $400,000 to $700,000 apart as far as completing a new deal.

Scott, though, isn't sure if he is competing with Ravens Pro Bowl linebacker Ray Lewis for a big contract.

Lewis, like Scott, will become a free agent tomorrow if he doesn't reach an agreement. The Ravens may be able to sign only one of the two, and might be pitting one against the other.


Cowboys not strongly interested in LB Lewis?

A team source told ESPN's Matt Mosley early Thursday that the Cowboys are not strongly interested in free agent Ray Lewis.

Mosley doesn't rule out a deal, but says Dallas "hasn't even spent much time discussing" it. Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome indicated Wednesday that the sides are still in talks. Lewis is expected to get upwards of $10M annually.


Salmons want to make the best of his trade to Bulls

John Salmons didn't carry nearly the same hype as No. 1 draft pick Derrick Rose.

But just like his new Bulls teammate, Salmons began his NBA career in his hometown of Philadelphia in 2002 after being chosen with the 26th pick of the draft. He doesn't recommend the experience.

"There were a lot of ups and downs," Salmons said Monday at the Berto Center. "It was pretty tough playing in my hometown. There was a lot of pressure there. I wasn't getting a lot of playing time, and when I was playing I wasn't at my best."

Salmons joined a 76ers team dominated by Allen Iverson that was struggling to match expectations built by reaching in the Finals in 2001. He tried to avoid media coverage after listening to angry fans rip on sports radio.

Salmons never did become a full-time starter, and after four seasons in Philadelphia he joined Sacramento as a free agent.

"It was a tough situation for me, but it made me better as a person," he said. "Even though I went to college four years, I wasn't really ready for that lifestyle, being the guy that the family looks up to; everybody's looking at you for decisions and support and stuff. It helped me to grow up fast."

Being traded midseason from the Kings to the Bulls wasn't easy, either, but the soft-spoken, devoutly religious Salmons is ready to make the best of it.

He scored 12 points in his Bulls debut, a 98-91 loss Sunday at Indiana. The 6-foot-6 swingman was averaging 18.3 points this season for Sacramento and is expected to play an important role on his new team.

"I'm trying to get myself comfortable, just get to the point where everything's normal," he said. "It's going to take awhile. I'm at the point in my career, if I'm open, I'm going to shoot it. I can't turn down an open look. I think that's one way to get comfortable."

Salmons, 29, grew up in North Philadelphia but spent his high school years living with the family of his best friend, Chuck Moore, in suburban Plymouth Meeting, Pa. Salmons took full advantage of having a driveway basketball hoop at his disposal.

"I was inside watching TV and doing whatever I was doing, and he was out there (in the driveway) pounding the ball," Moore told the Sacramento Bee. "With that drive and determination, I was like, 'This kid's going to make it, and he's going to be special.' "

Salmons was a little bit of a late bloomer at Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School, but he was heavily recruited by the time he was a senior.
His first choice was to attend Seton Hall with Moore and play for Tommy Amaker, but that fell through and Moore eventually transferred to Vanderbilt.

"They went after Al Harrington and some other guys and didn't get either one of them," Salmons said of Seton Hall. "They tried to recruit me again and I said no. I took a visit to UConn and wasn't crazy about my visit.

"I was supposed to take a visit to Michigan. They had a snowstorm the weekend I was supposed to go and Miami didn't. So I went to Miami. That's how I went there."

Miami has never been known as a basketball school, at least not since Ricky Barry's era.

But during Salmons' four years of college, the Hurricanes went to the NCAA Tournament three times, reached the Sweet Sixteen once and shared a Big East title. Miami's record during Salmons' career was 86-39.

"Even though we had a good team and were winning, for some reason I just never got a lot of hype," he said. "We just weren't a basketball school, so a lot of people didn't know us."

People know about South Florida, though, and it's not a bad place to attend college for four years.

"I always tell the story, in January and February, I would go from my dorm room to class and by the time I got to class I was in an all-out sweat," he said. "That's how good it was."

Chicago doesn't provide an improvement in weather from where Salmons has been living.

But the Bulls do offer a better chance at making the playoffs this season than the struggling Kings. So there are worse places he could be.


Perez takes positives from outing

FORT LAUDERDALE -- It was an eventful 2009 Grapefruit League debut for Chris Perez, but ultimately a successful one in more ways than one.

The results were solid: Perez allowed one hit and no walks in a scoreless inning. And the way he got there was pleasing to the right-hander.
Perez threw six or seven sliders and a couple of curveballs in the span of four batters, and he threw them mostly for strikes.

So even though he gave up plenty of contact on off-speed offerings -- some of it very hard contact -- Perez achieved what he wanted to.

"They told me that's what they want me to work on," Perez said, "and it's the best time to work on it -- Spring Training. They want me to throw it ahead in the count, behind in the count, even in the count, all the time. So today, I threw it first pitch to a guy, I threw it full count to a guy, threw it 2-2 to a guy. That's what I need to do right now. I worked it in a lot today, and it's the best it's been since I was in the Minors."

For too much of 2008, Perez was a one-pitch pitcher. He throws a fastball with excellent velocity and good movement, but he had a difficult time finding his breaking ball. This after he was drafted in 2006 on the strength of a fastball-slider combination at the University of Miami.

"It's not like I never had a slider," he said. "I just lost a feel for it last year. It's hard to get that feel in the big leagues, especially being a rookie and just trying to survive up there. It's hard when you only have one pitch. ... Especially during the season, relievers, we can't throw bullpens. So I was working on my slider during games."

Now he's working on it in the spring. And although it was far from perfect, it was in the strike zone on Thursday.

"He threw some that were promising," said manager Tony La Russa. "It's not there yet. You can't be happy. But it's promising."


St. Louis Cardinal's Chris Perez works to develop slider

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. — Chris Perez' road map for spring training is a simple one: He must become more than a one-pitch talent.

The young righthander acknowledges improving a slider is his ticket to the Cardinals' opening day roster, perhaps as the successor to departed closer Jason Isringhausen.

"I'm competing with myself to be on the team and competing with everybody else to be the closer," summarized Perez after working a scoreless fourth inning in Thursday's 11-3 loss to the Baltimore Orioles.

A member of the Cardinals' 2006 draft class, Perez, 23, fell into and out of the role after the organization hustled him to St. Louis following Isringhausen's May meltdown last season.

No longer a rookie despite remaining on many publications' prospect list, Perez made 41 major-league appearances. He compiled a credible 3.46 ERA but admits pitching much of the time with little confidence in anything other than his fastball.

"It's not like I never had a slider. I just lost the feel for it," recalled Perez, who rated it his best pitch while closing at Miami. "It's hard getting it back in the big leagues, especially being a rookie just trying to survive up there. It's not like a hitter, who can take 2,000 swings in the cage if he wants. During the season, relievers really can't throw a bullpen. I was working on my slider in games. That makes it tough. You throw a ball or they whack it, and you lose confidence in it."

Perez mixed six sliders among Thursday's 14 pitches. He threw 10 strikes to four hitters. One pitch became a double; two were hard outs to right fielder Ryan Ludwick, who went far into the right-center field gap to save Perez' scoreless inning. Perez counted the outing a success because he consistently found the strike zone. Precision within the zone will come later.

"Today it was looking good so I felt I could throw it for strikes. That changes your mentality," Perez said.

"He threw some that were promising," manager Tony La Russa said after an otherwise ugly game. "It's not there yet. You can't be happy. But it's promising."

No one questions Perez's velocity. But without an effective slider as an additional deterrent, he realizes that one pitch is not enough to keep major-league hitters at bay.

"They told me that's what they wanted me to work on," Perez said of his slider. "They want me to throw it ahead in the count, behind in the count, even in the count — all the time."

Dealing with pressure is part of the process. La Russa wants it to be palpable.

"There's the pressure of him making the team," La Russa said, careful to make known that no guarantees have been extended a pitcher many have anointed the organization's closer-in-waiting. "He has to earn that."

The message has resonated. Perez is well aware of La Russa's and Duncan's skittishness about exposing inexperienced major-league pitchers to ninth-inning pressure. The next six weeks provide time enough to make a case.

"Nothing is written in stone," Perez said. "We've got seven or eight guys for five righthanded (relief) spots," Perez said. "I'm still trying to show Dunc' and Tony I worked on stuff in the offseason — that I can be successful on a consistent basis in the major leagues.

"My first goal is to make the team. As a young guy, nothing is guaranteed. There's a little pressure for that. At the beginning of the season, if I'm the closer there's more pressure."

For now he refines the tool to help deal with it.


Felony charges against Vilma dropped

MIAMI -- Prosecutors in Miami are dropping all charges against New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma.

Authorities announced their decision in court Wednesday. Vilma was arrested last month on a felony charge of resisting arrest with violence and misdemeanor counts of reckless driving and obstruction of justice. Prosecutors did not immediately give a reason for dropping the case.

Vilma will donate $1,000 to a hospital trauma center, said Ed Griffith, a spokesman for the Miami-Dade State Attorney's office. The officer involved agreed with the decision not to press charges, Griffith said.

Attorney Michael Tein says his client is relieved and is looking forward to focusing on football again.

Vilma is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on Friday but has said he would prefer to stay in New Orleans. He played every defensive snap and led the Saints in tackles in his first season with New Orleans after spending his first four years with the New York Jets.

"I appreciate that the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office did their due diligence and decided not to file charges against me regarding the arrest that occurred on January 16, 2009 in Miami," Vilma said in a prepared statement. "I believe the State Attorney's Office did the just and right thing in this matter. I would like to thank my family and friends, the New Orleans Saints organization, and my fans for supporting and believing in me."


Beason's success triggers escalators in his contract

Jon Beason had great success on the field in 2008 and now he's being rewarded for it.

To the tune of $780,500.

Beason, who was voted to the Pro Bowl in just his second season with the Panthers and named All-Pro at middle linebacker, triggered some escalator clauses in his contract over the next three seasons because of his outstanding play. Beason’s base salary has increased $365,000 this year (from $735,000 to $1.1 million), $257,500 in 2010 (from $857,500 to $1,115,000) and $158,000 in 2011 (from $980,000 to $1,138,000), according to league documents.

This year’s $365,000 pay increase will count against the team's salary cap in 2009.

Beason is also due a $2.5 million bonus prior to next season as part of his original rookie contract signed in 2007. His contract with the Panthers runs through 2011, but you can bet at some point in the next two years the Panthers will look to sign Beason to a contract extension given how well he's played.


Lewis solid in the middle of the DL

CHARLOTTE -- The Panthers might not know who's going to be on the end of their defensive line this season, but they know who's going to be in the middle for some time.

As part of their salary cap shuffling measures Wednesday, the Panthers extended the contract of defensive tackle Damione Lewis.

On paper, he's under contract through the 2014 season, though Lewis said that was a bit of a technicality. His pending $2.5 million roster bonus was turned into a signing bonus, and his base salaries were reduced from $3.17 million this year and $4.05 million in 2010 to $2.0 million and $755,000.

The move will clear at least $2 million worth of room on the proration of his bonus over five years, and could be worth more.

"In a lot of ways, it's still the same contract," Lewis said. "I still get what was coming to me, we were just able to spread things out to help with the numbers."

It also provides a measure of security for Lewis, who'll turn 31 on Sunday. He's rehabbing from a recent shoulder surgery, saying one of the muscles in his rotator cuff was torn. He said he expected to begin lifting weights in June, and hoped to be ready to go by the start of training camp. Lewis injured the shoulder in the Dec. 21 game at New York, when the Panthers were playing without nose tackle Maake Kemoeatu. He slid over that night, and blew the shoulder while taking on a double team the much larger Kemoeatu would normally have faced.

He sat out the regular season finale at New Orleans, but came back to play two weeks later in the playoff loss to Arizona.

"Right now everything's going good," Lewis said. "From what they're saying, I should be good to go when camp starts. All I know is, as bad as it sounds, it could have been a lot worse."


Buchanon in Negotiations with Bucs

The Bucs also are in heavy negotiations with cornerback Phillip Buchanon, who is a priority, but there's been no word on whether a deal is close.


Salmons scores 15 for Bulls

John Salmons hit 4-of-6 shots for 15 points, five rebounds and two 3-pointers in Wednesday's loss.

He's somehow getting more minutes than Tyrus Thomas and played 32 minutes tonight, as Thomas played just 24. Salmons doesn't have as much intrigue as he had before the trade, but he is still worth owning in most leagues.


Jones Important For the Heat

James Jones worked with a protective glove on his right hand. "He shot the lights out," coach Erik Spoelstra said.

Spoelstra said Jones was ready to return Tuesday night from his bruised right hand, but wasn't needed. He said the decision to hold out Jones against the Pistons was "a read as the game was going on."


Three Former Hurricanes To Play In World Baseball Classic

CORAL GABLES, Fla. - Former Hurricanes Ryan Braun (USA), Alex Cora (Puerto Rico) and Carlos Gutierrez (Puerto Rico) have been selected to play in next month's World Baseball Classic. Cora, a shortstop at Miami from 1994-96, is one of six infielders on Puerto Rico's roster, while Gutierrez, UM's closer last season, is one of 14 pitchers on the squad. Braun, an All-Star last year with the Milwaukee Brewers, is one of four outfielders on Team USA.

Final rosters of the 16 participating countries were announced late Tuesday, a little more than a week before the second annual tournament begins on March 5.

Cora, a recent signee with the New York Mets, is an 11-year Major League Baseball veteran with 688 career hits in his big league career. Gutierrez, a first-round draft pick of the Minnesota Twins in 2008, went 3-1 with a 2.10 ERA with the Class A Advanced Fort Myers Miracle last season. Braun, the National League's 2007 Rookie of the Year, hit .285 with 37 homers and 106 RBI this past season.

Team Puerto Rico, along with fellow Pool D members Dominican Republic, Netherlands and Panama, will play its first round games at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico. If Team Puerto Rico is able to reach the second round of the Classic, Cora and Gutierrez will play in South Florida at Dolphin Stadium from March 14-19.

Other first-round games of the WBC are slated for Tokyo Dome (March 5-8), Toronto's Rogers Centre (March 8-12) and Foro Sol Stadium in Mexico City (March 8-12).

In addition to Dolphin Stadium, San Diego's PETCO Park will serve as the other second round venue.

Dodger Stadium will host the semifinals and finals from March 21-23. PETCO was home to the semis and finals in 2006, when Japan defeated Cuba to take home the first Classic championship.

All 39 games are slated to be televised this year by ESPN and MLB Network -- 16 on the Network, which also adds a nightly half-hour wrap-up show of the day's events.


Ravens making plans to replace Ray Lewis?

Are the Ravens making contingency plans to play next season without longtime LB Ray Lewis?

The Baltimore Sun reports the team may be nearing a deal with LB Bart Scott, who like Lewis is set to become a free agent on Friday. Scott could slide to the inside linebacker role Lewis has long occupied, the paper reports.

Also, the Sun says that team owner Steve Bisciotti may have been irritated by Lewis' comments lately that he would entertain offers to play for the Jets or Cowboys.

Dallas LB DeMarcus Ware said last week Lewis told him at the Pro Bowl it's his "dream" to play for the Cowboys.


Bucs Phillip Buchanon likely on his way out

Our moles at the NFL combine in Indianapolis over the weekend got wind that the agent for Tampa Bay unrestricted free agent cornerback Phillip Buchanon -- that would be Drew Rosenhaus -- is looking for a deal that guarantees the seven-year veteran $12 million.

That's not going to happen; at least not where the Bucs are concerned.

Last April, the Bucs selected Kansas cornerback Aqib Talib with the 20th overall pick in the draft. The kid showed flashes as a rookie in a limited role, finishing tied for the team lead with four interceptions. 

Talib was drafted as the likely heir to Ronde Barber, who turns 34 this offseason, but Barber still has some gas in his tank and after a 2008 season that clearly was not up to his standards he'll be looking to rebound. He has the added advantage of having his former position coach Raheem Morris -- a big Barber fan -- as the new head coach.

Should Buchanon bolt, that will leave the Bucs with Barber, Talib and second-year pro Elbert Mack (who showed promise as a rookie) as the only corners under contract, but depth could be shored up in free agency and the draft.

Buchanon is a good player, but two teams (Oakland and Houston) gave up on the former first-round draft pick before Tampa Bay scooped him off waivers. He's been well worth that investment, but he's not a $12 million guaranteed player. When he hits the open market at 12:01 a.m. Friday, however, some team might disagree agree.

It only takes one of the 32 to like you.

If that's the case, good for him.


Start John Salmons, see what you got ... because you know the Bulls you had

Doesn't John Salmons have to start at off-guard?

Even if Bulls general manager John Paxson left open the possibility of bringing back Ben Gordon, don't you still need to start Salmons tonight against Orlando instead of judging practices? Don't you need to start Salmons for a couple weeks to figure out whether he works off Derrick Rose and can guard somebody?

We already know Gordon does a good job of stopping the ball as if the offense runs through him and we already know NBA players voted him Player You'd Most Like To Post Up. Too often Gordon looks as if he's making a video brochure for his upcoming free agency.

Whatever, the Bulls already know what he can and cannot do. They ought to know, anyway. So, aren't they compelled to get answers on Salmons? I mean, what are we doing here?

If making the playoffs is the point, then don't play the new guys. The Bulls won two games with a short roster, then lost when they got the band back together.

But that's just it: We don't know the point of this season.

Or next.

Is the object of the exercise to make the playoffs no matter what? Is the goal simply to acquire contracts that allow the Bulls to become a free-agent player leading up to next year's trade deadline and/or free-agent off-season? Pick a lane.

Bulls management apparently is contractually obligated to tell you that the answer is both. The trades with the Kings and Knicks made the Bulls marginally better, and marginal is all you need in the Eastern Conference.

The Bulls enter play tonight 1 1/2 games behind Milwaukee for the last playoff spot in the East despite their 25-31 record. This is what you get in the NBA's kiddie pool: Six games under .500 and the Bulls are a playoff contender. The East might have three teams under .500 make the playoffs. In the West right now, there's one playoff team team under .600.

The trades with the Kings and Knicks also gave the Bulls financial flexibility for the big free-agent bonanza. OK. Fine. I can hardly wait to see what moves will be made by the organization that overpaid for Luol Deng.

By the way, when you hear Paxson talk about financial flexibility, that's code for management's version of the My Turn basketball that too many players exhibit on the court.

But that answer ought to be C: the growth and development of Rose. Period. End of discussion. Next.

Who plays well with this guy? Who makes himself available for a pass by cutting and working to get open? Who hogs the ball?

Because the point of the season is moving closer to winning an NBA title, and if that ever happens, Rose is the only guy on this roster you can comfortably picture in that accomplishment. This season and next are about Rose's running the offense his way and getting better defensively, not wins and losses.

The Bulls can't come out and say that. Kind of slags the concept of competition the same way players worry more about contracts and sneaker deals than fundamentals. OK. Fine. Don't say it. Just do it.


St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Chris Perez knows he's under microscope

JUPITER, Fla. — Just a few short strides from the doors of the Cardinals' spring training clubhouse, there is important work being done. Behind the giant, green chain-link fence windscreen, you can hear the work long before you see it.

Shhhhhhhhhh thuuuuuump!

It is the distinctive sound of a baseball whistling through the air at warp speed, then pounding to an abrupt stop into the firm leather pocket of a catcher's mitt. The baseball sounds different, almost violent as it cuts through the air. If string music is basketball's sweetest sound and the ball rattling into the cup is golf's beautiful music, then this is one of baseball's finest melodies:

This is the sound of frightening velocity, 94-miles plus.

Shhhhhhhhhh thuuuuuump!

This is why 23-year-old Chris Perez is attracting a crowd. The big kid with the baby face, stringy long hair and rocket arm is trying to earn his way onto the Cardinals' regular-season roster as the team's closer. No matter where he is throwing — here on the practice mound, over on the far field throwing live batting practice — people tend to gather.

A few days ago, the kid was cranking it up behind the windscreen, and in a few minutes he had no fewer than 15 people staring at him. Coaches, front-office types, media folks and more than a few teammates, carefully scrutinizing every pitch he threw.

"Yeah, I notice," Perez said Monday as he stood near the clubhouse door. "But you have to kind of block that out. You can't allow that to affect how you go about your business every day. But that is something that is real. Every time I throw there seems to be more people watching me than the last time. I guess that is part of them evaluating me and the other (closer candidates) to see who will win the job."

The process has just begun, but the ever-expanding crowd is an indication of just how unique Perez's talent is and just how important he figures to be to this 2009 season. The coaches and personnel folks are evaluating the simple pitching functions. They're looking for arm slots and velocity. They're scrutinizing just how much Perez can make that change-up dance and that fastball zing.

At 6 feet 4, 225 pounds, the righthanded reliever showed promise in his brief major-league stint last season — enough promise that the organization coaxed manager Tony La Russa to consider doing something he absolutely abhors: handing the closer's job over to an untested rookie.

The former first-round draft pick (2006) out of the University of Miami has to convince pitching coach Dave Duncan and all those other organizational eyes that he has mastered a second pitch (a slider) to go along with that explosive 94-95 mph fastball that brings total smoke toward the plate. "It wasn't that I needed to get a second pitch," said Perez. "I just have to throw it better. I had (the slider) all through the minors, I just have to get better at it. But I got away from using it last year and I sort of lost the feel for it, and up in the big leagues it's kind of tough to get it back because the hitters are so good. It's not when I was in the minors where you can get away with things because the hitters aren't nearly as good.

"That's sort of what happened to me last year when I got in a rut and tried to find it in the games and it just wasn't happening," Perez said. "But when I came into spring training, I just went back to throwing it like I did in the minors, and it's worked so far pretty good."

But there is something else he has to work on, and that is why he's drawing the discerning stares from Cardinals veterans, too. When they gather along the fringes of Perez's vision, they're looking to see something a bit more intangible than what the personnel people are searching for.

Confirmation that they can trust the kid in one of the most significant roles on this team. A reliable closer could be the difference between the Cards being middle-of-the-pack pretenders and serious NL Central contenders. So when you see Albert Pujols stroll over from the batting cage to sneak a peek from behind the fence, you understand how much weight is on Perez's shoulders.

"Right now I'm just trying to win a job on the team," said the kid. "That's one of my goals is to just win a spot on the roster coming out of spring training. Now a secondary goal is to pitch good in spring training and hopefully have them pick me as the closer. That's something I worked hard for in the offseason, and that would be nice."

Barely a week into spring training, it's way too early to make any definitive judgments on Perez. Live batting practice and side sessions are like going to the practice range and pounding a bucket of golf balls. They're all about technique, not competition.

He has spent the entire offseason working on perfecting that second pitch, making it nearly impossible to detect a difference in his arm slot between his slider and his fastball.

The crowds gathering around Perez are growing by the day, and everyone is waiting to be pleased. Chris Perez pretends he doesn't notice, but he feels all those eyes and all that pressure on him. If it turns out that all that pressure feels like a scalding hot lamp in an interrogation room, this could be a difficult season for the Redbirds. But if Perez can treat all those glaring eyes like the soothing rays of the sun, the Cardinals are sure to prosper.


Sanchez set for Marlins' spring opener

JUPITER, Fla. -- In his fourth season with the Marlins, Anibal Sanchez has a new number and renewed optimism.

The 24-year-old right-hander is taking the ball today in Florida's first Grapefruit League game. The 1:05 p.m. ET contest will be played at Roger Dean Stadium against the Cardinals, with Florida being the visitors.

Blake Hawksworth is pitching for St. Louis.

The appearance for Sanchez, who projects to throw two innings or 30 pitches, will be his first in a Grapefruit League game since 2007. The past few years, he was hampered by shoulder problems, and he underwent shoulder surgery in June 2007.

Pinpoint control is so much of Sanchez's game. But because he's missed a great deal of time with his shoulder issues, the command is taking a while to return.

Early in Spring Training, Sanchez was working on his curveball, to go along with his slider, changeup and fastball.

"That curveball has helped me when I need it," Sanchez said. "Right now, it's all over the place. I have to throw it in my spot."

As for his changeup, Sanchez said: "It's better this year. I've got better command on everything. My slider is working better. It's down, and it's not too flat. When you're healthy, you can do a lot of different things. Right now, I'm healthy."

When Sanchez takes the field today, he will be wearing No. 19. In his first three seasons with Florida, he donned No. 36.

Before Spring Training started, Sanchez asked reliever Logan Kensing, who previously had No. 19, if he would switch. Kensing took No. 20, which had belonged to Matt Treanor, who now is with the Tigers.

"I just like the number," Sanchez said of 19.

So much so that he has a tattoo on his left shoulder that includes the number.

The last time Sanchez faced hitters in a game situation was a few months ago when he made two appearances in the Venezuelan Winter League.

"It's like I'm starting over again," Sanchez said.

With games getting under way, it will be a chance to see how the Marlins are coming together.

John Baker enters as the starting catcher for the first time. Cameron Maybin is the regular center fielder. Gaby Sanchez is aiming to show he is deserving of the first-base job. Cody Ross will be in right field with Jeremy Hermida in left.

A right fielder throughout his career, Hermida has been adjusting to left field.

"The most important thing that I can do, and an outfielder can do, is taking balls live off the bat," Hermida said. "When we start playing every day, during BP, I've got to get out there and shag fly balls. That's the best time I can have to simulate balls off the bat, and getting a true angle and a true read on them."


proCanes.com Looks at the 2009 NFL U Free Agents and Where They Might Land

Below proCanes.com analyzes the NFL U free agent market and tries to give you, the fans, a better idea of where these free agents may end up for the 2009 season. First off, here are the different types of free agents defined in case you don't now the difference:

Unrestricted Free Agents
Unrestricted Free Agents (UFA) are players who have completed four or more accrued seasons of service and whose contracts have expired. They are free to sign with any club.

Restricted Free Agents
Restricted Free Agents (RFA) are players who have completed three accrued seasons of service and whose contracts have expired. They have received qualifying offers from their old clubs and are free to negotiate with any club until April 21, at which time their rights revert to their original club. If a player accepts an offer from a new club, the old club will have the right to match the offer and retain the player. If the old club elects not to match the offer, it may receive draft-choice compensation depending on the level of the qualifying offer made to the player.

Exclusive-Rights Free Agents
Exclusive-Rights Free Agents (ERFAs) are players who have completed between 0-2 accrued seasons of service whose contracts have expired. If tendered, they have no negotiating rights with other clubs and must sign their tender with their old club or sit out the season.


Phillip Buchanon CB 5-11 186 7th Season Buccaneers:
According to members of the Buccaneers organization, many from within believe Phillip Buchanon was their most consistent cornerback last year. At the beginning of the offseason many people thought the Bucs would let Buchanon go because of the coaching changes and and change in defensive philosophy. That looks to not be the case though. The Bucs will be talking to Buchanon's agent Drew Rosenhaus this week and hope to sign before he hits the open market. After a rough beginning to his career, Buchanon seems to have settled and become a vital part of the Tampa Bay defense. Look for him to remain a Buccaneer.

Vernon Carey OT 6-5 350 5th Season Dolphins:
Vernon Carey actually never hit the free agency market despite not being franchised by the Miami Dolphins. Once the Dolphins elected not to franchise him most people began to speculate that they no longer wanted Carey and both the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings would go after him. One day later though, the Dolphins did sign Carey to a 6-year $42 million contract making him the highest paid right tackle in the league. Congrats to Vernon!

Bubba Franks TE 6-6 265 9th Season NY Jets:
Bubba Franks had a disappointing 2008 season despite being teamed up with Brett Favre again. Bubba's best seasons as a Green Bay Packer were with Favre, but they never seemed to to find that magic last year as Jets. Bubba fought through injuries during the season but missed 8 games. He finished the season with only six reception for 47 yards and no TDs. The Jets did released TE Chris Baker, which would create an opening for Bubba, but they do have Dustin Keller who they are pretty high on. If Bubba stays looks for him to be Keller's backup which is a possibility as long as he can show that he can stay healthy.

William Joseph DT 6-5 308 6th Season Raiders:
Joseph was signed last offseason by the Raiders to give them help along the defensive line with the loss of Warren Sapp. Joseph was cut right before the beginning of season, but was then signed in week 8 and played the last 7 weeks of the season accumulating 8 tackles. Since being drafted by the NY Giants in the first round in 2003, Joseph has not lived up to expectations. He will probably get signed by someone in need of DL depth and it very well could be the Oakland Raiders.

Ray Lewis LB 6-1 250 13th Season Ravens:
It is rumored that the Jets are making salary cap room to possibly sign Ray Lewis. The Cowboys have been rumored to be a destination Ray would potentially prefer as well. Ray has said before that he would like to end his career as a Raven and the Ravens would really like to sign him before the free agency period begins on February 27, despite being irked by his comments at the Pro Bowl which most people think were said to get him a bigger contract. This would be the first time Ray would hit the free agent market and the Ravens are afraid that if he does he will be gone. Look for the Ravens to sign him before he hits the market.

Darrell McClover LB 6-1 226 5th Season Bears:
McClover has been important cog in the Bears' special teams for the past few years, but he missed the last 6 games due to injury this year and the Bears do not seem to be interested in resigning him. He has been a career special teams player but also has the ability to play the OLB spot. If the Bears do not re-sign him, which looks unlikely, look for him to get picked up by a team with special teams needs like the Patriots, Chiefs, or Titans.

Jerome McDougle DE 6-2 2646th Season NY Giants:
McDougle has dealt with a lot of adversity during his short career and unfortunately has never lived up to expectations despite always performing well in training camps. More than anything, he is happy to be alive considering his near-death experience of being shot in the abdomen. McDougle didn’t contribute much to the Giants, and now Osi Umenyiora is presumably coming back to join what should be a three-man end rotation with Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka. Dave Tollefson (an exclusive rights free agent) figures to be the fourth. If there’s a fifth, it’ll come out of the draft. Look for McDougle to get one more shot in someone's training camp, he has shows great resiliency throughout his tough career.

Brett Romberg C 6-2 298 5th Season Rams:
Though a little undersized Romberg has been in the thick of the starting center position for the last few years in St. Louis. He started three games in 2006, nine games in 2007 and six games in 2008. Last year he broke his hand in training camp and lost the job to Nick Leckey. Romberg did end up starting the last 6 games of the season though. The Rams seems to like Romberg more than Leckey so look for them to re-sign Romberg.

Jonathan Vilma LB 6-1230 5th Season Saints:
Re-signing MLB Jonathan Vilma is the Saints' top priority. Vilma, who was traded to the Saints a year ago, is said to be very interested in re-upping with New Orleans, but the team will not strike a deal with him until Feb. 27 — the start of free agency — at the earliest, guaranteeing that Vilma will hit the open market. Signing him before then would force the Saints to give up higher draft picks to the Giants and Jets — first- and second-rounders, respectively, instead of second- and third-rounders — per the deals for TE Jeremy Shockey and Vilma. The Saints are optimistic he will be back and so are we. Unless someone throws a lot of money in Vilma's direction look for him to sign with the Saints as soon as he hits the market.

Nate Webster LB 6-0 232 9th Season Broncos:
Webster beat out free-agent Niko Koutouvides for the starting MLB spot last fall which was a huge surprise to many considering the large contract that was given to Koutouvides. The Denver defense last year was bad. Many people blamed Webster but the problems ran much deeper than him. The DL was atrocious and injuries took their toll as well with DJ Williams missing time as well as Webster. Koutouvides was recently cut by the Broncos, which could mean that the Broncos are interested in keeping Webster. If they do, look for him to be more of an insurance policy as he can backup all three LB positions or if Williams is moved back to MLB then Webster could find a spot on the outside.


Rashad Butler OT 6-4 309 3rd Season Texans:
Butler is well-respected in the Texans organization because of his ability to overcome the disease: ulcerative colitis. This was the reason for Butler's inability to keep weight on during his days in Carolina. Since then he has been able to control the disease and played in 8 games in 2007. He didn't see much action in 2008, but look for the Texans to resign him for a league minimum resulting in 3 offensive lineman from the U on the Texans (Chris Myers, Eric Winston, Rashad Butler).


Orien Harris DL6-3 300 1st Season Bengals:
Harris was a standout in Saints camp in 2008 and was surprisingly released before the season started. The Bengals though, snatched him up quickly and Harris saw action in 14 games and started Week 6 against the Jets. He is an exclusive rights free agent; the team has already signed FB/TE Daniel Coats, who was the other player in that category. Look for the Bengals to re-sign him and in the off chance they don't, the Saints will be in the running for his services.


Ken Dorsey QB 6-4 215 6th Season Browns:
Dorsey struggled towards the end of last year when he was forced into action for four of the last five games of the season throwing zero touchdowns and 7 interceptions. Dorsey has always been limited physically but has been a great tutor for Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn. If he lands anywhere it will probably be with Rob Chudzinski and the San Diego Chargers to mentor Phillip Rivers.

Najeh Davenport RB 6-1 247 7th Season Colts:
Najeh played 4 games for the Steelers last year in the middle of the season after being released in the offseason. He was then released by the Steelers and signed by the Colts where he played in two games before being released before the start of the playoffs. Davenports has shown he can still play both as a running back and also as a kickoff return man. In week 17 he had 8 carries for 26 yards along with four receptions for 54 yards. The knock on Davenport has always been his ability to stay healthy and stay in shape. Look for him to get signed by someone in need of RB depth and also special teams player.

Tarvares Gooden up next if Scott, Lewis exit

Tavares Gooden is the favorite to start at inside linebacker next season for Baltimore if Ray Lewis or Bart Scott leave in free agency.

A third-round pick in 2008, Gooden will be an IDP sleeper in particular if he takes Lewis' position. He'd do more blitzing in the role vacated by Scott.


Vernon Carey Contract Details Released

Breaking down elements of Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Vernon Carey’s six-year, $42 million contract signed Friday, Adam Caplan of Scout.com reveals that Carey will be paid $18.9 million during the first two years of the blockbuster deal.

Citing a league source, Caplan reports that Carey will make $15 million in 2009 through a $12 million signing bonus, an $800,000 base salary, a $2 million roster bonus and has the opportunity to make an additional $200,000 through a workout bonus.

Now, Carey is the highest paid right tackle in the league.

An additional cherry on the top of this rich sundae is the fact that there’s no state tax in Florida.


Payton: No handshake agreement that Vilma will re-sign

Following the completion of a roster purge to clear salary-cap space, the Saints will shift their attention to free agency, where re-signing MLB Jonathan Vilma will be a top priority. Vilma, who was traded to the Saints a year ago, is said to be very interested in re-upping with New Orleans, but the team will not strike a deal with him until Feb. 27 — the start of free agency — at the earliest, guaranteeing that Vilma will hit the open market. Signing him before then would force the Saints to give up higher draft picks to the Giants and Jets — first- and second-rounders, respectively, instead of second- and third-rounders — per the deals for TE Jeremy Shockey and Vilma. “I’m optimistic (Vilma will be back),” head coach Sean Payton told PFW at the Combine. “I think he fit well with our locker room. I wish there was a handshake agreement (that Vilma will re-sign), but there’s no handshake agreement.”


Buchanon next target

Scott Reynolds, of PewterReport.com, reports the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are looking to re-sign impeding free-agent CB Phillip Buchanon. Re-signing Buchanon is believed to be the team's top priority right now. "I had a very good conversation with (Buchanon's agent) Drew (Rosenhaus) on Friday and we understand that we're going to circle back and talk some more for the next few days and see if anything makes sense for both of us," general manger Mark Dominik said.


Cards' GM: No definitive decision on James

Arizona Cardinals General Manager Rod Graves spoke with running back Edgerrin James by phone this week, and though Graves wouldn't reveal details of the conversation, the parties likely agreed to disagree.

James wants to be released, and the Cardinals aren't going to do that until they have a suitable replacement.

"We have not made a definitive decision on Edgerrin James," Graves said. "We did have a conversation during the season where that was an acknowledgement how he felt about him being with us after the season. We said we would sit down and talk about it after the season was over.

"But there was no commitment with respect to a timeframe or even that we would let him go."


Winslow likely to stay in Cleveland?

Beat writer Tony Grossi suggests that the chances of Kellen Winslow being traded may have decreased under the Browns' new regime.

Grossi would've expected K2 to be dealt had GM Phil Savage stayed on, but Eric Mangini probably wants to keep his most reliable pass catcher. That doesn't mean Winslow won't ask for a new contract again later this spring.


Update on Jamaal Green as a Border Patrol Agent

Click here to read the story we brought you a few week back with photos.

Ed Reed on what makes a great safety

Last summer I had an opportunity to spend time with former Destrehan High and current Baltimore Ravens All-Pro free safety Ed Reed at his yearly football camp.

The perennial Pro-Bowler is someone I think is the best safety to play in the NFL over the past 20 years. Reed gave his thoughts on what makes a good safety prospect and the responsibilities given to that very important spot on the field.

“I love playing the position because you are given so many responsibilities from play to play,” Reed said. “One play you are man to man with a receiver, just like a cornerback, the next play you might be up on the line of scrimmage playing the run like a linebacker in run support and the following play you are blitzing from the edge like a defensive end. You add that up and also throw in that at other times you are playing centerfield, or half the field, and reading the quarterback. Now you can see why it is such a unique spot. It’s really become more of a “hybrid” position today than back years ago when your responsibilities were more like the last shield of pass defense or in run support.”

Reed says that extensive film work and a God-given knack for being around the football are the keys to excellent safety play.

“I spend a lot of time in the film room trying to find an advantage. After a while I see something I can use during a game. Sometimes it is recognition of a play by the way the wide receiver or tight end lines up or by the way he leans in, or it’s just a mannerism I see from the quarterback that tips me off. Some players hide it better than others, but the film sessions are very important. The one thing I know from being in this league since 2002 is that every great player — Ray Lewis spends as much time as any quarterback in film study — really works at being as prepared as they can be when they take the field.

“Secondly I would say that every good safety has a knack for being around the football. Call it instinct or mentally having an idea what is going on, but you have to have that trait for being around the football. If it’s in coverage or in run support, it is all about being around the football and making a play. Just like every other position, you have guys with the size, speed and athleticism to excel, but they sometimes are a little slow to react. The great safeties in this league like Brian Dawkins, Bob Sanders, Adrian Wilson, Troy Polamalu and the older veterans like Rodney Harrison and Corey Chavous have that knack of reacting a second quicker than most, and they understand the whole picture of playing defense. Call it instinct or better knowledge of the game, but it is vital.”

Reed didn’t include his name in that list, but he hit the nail on the head on what makes him so special, also. His talent is superb, but it is also his innate instincts and his extensive study habits that separate his skills from many of the rest.

What is also interesting is that when you watched the NFC and AFC championship games this past season, Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu, Adrian Wilson and Brian Dawkins — four of the very best players at their positions — had their teams in a position to get into the Super Bowl.


Looking for a compliment for Gore?

Michael C. Wright, of The Florida Times-Union, reports San Francisco 49ers head coach Mike Singletary said the team would like a running back to compliment starter Frank Gore. "It would help to have someone come in and share the load," Singletary said. "Maybe someone who has a different style, someone who adds another dimension to our running game."


Zorn Says He and Portis Are 'Solid'

INDIANAPOLIS--Washington Redskins Coach Jim Zorn and tailback Clinton Portis had their issues during the season. But Portis said during Super Bowl week that he was glad to see Zorn retained by the Redskins for a second season, and Zorn said here today at the NFL scouting combine that he thinks his relationship with Portis is fine.

"I don't think there was ever anything there," Zorn said. "I think we're solid. He's just gotten frustrated with some things and needed to voice it. I don't have a problem with it."

Zorn said he thought the incident during the season in which Portis, upset about how he was used in a game, criticized Zorn on a radio show was not worth the attention that it received and was "not that newsworthy."

Zorn also said: "I've always felt like Clinton and I have a pretty strong relationship, to be honest with you. I see that when something gets spoken about, it escalates."


Wilfork, Pats talking contract

JUPITER, Fla. - The Patriots [team stats] and Vince Wilfork [stats] have restarted discussions on a contract extension that the nose tackle hopes makes him “a Patriot for a long time.”

Speaking between innings at a charity softball game for the Heath Evans [stats] Foundation last night, Wilfork said his mood has brightened considerably in the last couple of weeks with the opening of talks he characterized as “extremely positive.”

“We’ve been communicating back and forth,” he said. “That’s the only thing I wanted. I don’t care if nothing moves. I just wanted to communicate, let them know that, ‘Hey, this is what we’re thinking and this is what they’re thinking.’ All of that has been positive.”

Wilfork didn’t say if the sides had exchanged specific contract proposals, but that was almost besides the point.

What mattered is they’re talking.

“Everything’s moving in the right direction,” Wilfork said. “There’s been a lot of communication between us and them. We’re both on the same level. Before we weren’t, but now we are. I believe it will continue, and if it does, I will be a New England Patriot for a long time. I truly believe that. Deep down in my heart, I believe that.”

Wilfork has one year remaining on the six-year, $9 million rookie deal he signed after being selected in the first round of the 2004 draft.

The Pro Bowler has since emerged as one of the best nose tackles in the game and perhaps the most indispensable member of the Patriots defense.

He was trying not to feel discouraged earlier this month when the one-year anniversary of his last contract discussions with the team came and went. But a fresh round of talks kicked off in the last 10 days, and Wilfork now believes the sides will eventually reach an agreement.

Wilfork wouldn’t disclose who initiated contact talks - “It was mutual,” he said. “One hand washes the other.” - but his frame of mind clearly has improved significantly as a result.

He’s intrigued by a market that saw defensive lineman Julius Peppers franchised by the Panthers for $16.683 million.

Although conventional wisdom has held that salaries will tighten amid a struggling economy - one need look no further than baseball for proof - some of the deals already struck suggest Wilfork will be compensated in line with other top-flight players.

“The economy is bad for everyone, don’t get me wrong, but this is big business,” Wilfork said.

“You have to do what you have to do. I think we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks that teams are still making moves, even though the economy is the way it is. I look forward to the future. I can’t complain about anything.”

Wilfork said that even if no deal is reached this offseason, he’ll happily play out his final year with the belief that something can be done before he reaches free agency.

“I know how they feel about me, and they know how I feel about them,” Wilfork said.

“I’ve said from Day 1 that I wanted to enter the NFL as a New England Patriot and leave the NFL as a New England Patriot. I’m sticking to my word and I don’t think that will change. I’m very happy, very positive and looking forward to the future.”


Lewis' free-agent dance with Dallas

From owner Steve Bisciotti to coach John Harbaugh, the Ravens have made it clear they want to bring back Ray Lewis.

But the Pro Bowl inside linebacker could be laying the groundwork to go elsewhere when free agency begins Friday.

According to Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware, Lewis said it's his "dream" to play in Dallas and repeatedly expressed his desire to sign there.

"When we played Ray Lewis and Baltimore at the end of the season, he came over and pointed to my helmet. He said: 'I want to wear this star on my helmet. That's my dream ... that's my dream,'. " Ware told the Cowboys' official Web site. "When we got to the Pro Bowl, he did it again. He came at me every day. He's trying to get down where the star is. He told me he needed me to get him [owner] Jerry Jones' phone number for him. I just busted out laughing."

If the Ravens are unable to reach a new contract with Lewis in four days, he will become a free agent for the first time in his 13-year career.

While Lewis might be targeting Dallas, the feeling might not be mutual. The Cowboys are reportedly $10 million under the salary cap and likely will use most of that in signing Ware to a franchise-record contract.

Ware, who led the NFL with 20 sacks last season, said he doesn't believe Lewis is using the Cowboys as leverage against the Ravens.

"Believe me, he is genuine," Ware told the Cowboys' Web site. "He talked to me two years ago about it. He calls me about once a week and talks about it then. I even said: 'Hey, Ray, I'm tired about talking about this. You need to find Jerry Jones' number and fly out there and talk to him.'. "


Jets create room for Ray Lewis

INDIANAPOLIS - The Ray Lewis rumors got a lot louder Thursday night.

The Jets left themselves perilously thin at inside linebacker, releasing veteran backups David Bowens and Brad Kassell - moves that could mean they're clearing the deck to pursue Lewis or Ravens teammate Bart Scott, another inside linebacker.

"They must be targeting a linebacker, probably from Baltimore," Bowens said in a phone interview.

New coach Rex Ryan, previously the Ravens' defensive coordinator, knows Lewis and Scott as well as anyone. Ryan has only one experienced inside linebacker under contract, David Harris, so it doesn't take a genius to connect the dots.

Lewis and Scott will be free agents on Feb. 27, although the Ravens are expected to make a push to sign Lewis before he hits the open market. The Ravens used their franchise tag on outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, effectively removing him from the market. Scott wants to stay in Baltimore, but he doubts that will happen.

"If you're able to keep all three of us, you'd almost have to be a miracle worker," he said Wednesday on Sirius Radio.

Lewis is a future Hall of Famer and has said he'd enjoy being reunited with Ryan, but Scott, 28, makes more sense to the Jets because he's nearly six years younger than Lewis. Scott will be one of the most coveted free agents in the league, but the Jets have $18 million in salary-cap space after gaining an additional $3 million with the release of Bowens and Kassell.

Jets' brass arrived here at the scouting combine with several pressing issues. They will meet Friday night with the agent for right guard Brandon Moore, who is due a $7 million roster bonus. The team poured a lot of money into the offensive line last offseason and wants to renegotiate his contract. Failing that, the Jets may release Moore, their best run blocker. He'd immediately become one of the top free-agent guards.

They also may part ways with tight end Chris Baker, another financially motivated decision. If he's on the roster March 5, the Jets would have to guarantee $9 million in salary over the next three years - a prohibitive amount at a position where they invested a first-round choice in Dustin Keller.

The Jets can use some of the savings for running back Leon Washington, whom they'd like to sign to a long-term deal. Washington, entering the final year of his contract, is likely seeking Darren Sproles money; the Chargers' all-purpose dynamo received the franchise tag - a cool $6.6 million for one year.

Meanwhile, the Jets lost a respected leader in Bowens, who started five games when Harris was hurt. Bowens recently underwent arthroscopic knee surgery.

"My knee was messed up since training camp," he said. "I could've sat down, but I sucked it up for the team. Was it worth it? Yeah, it was. I put the team ahead of me."


Salmons brings 'attitude' to Bulls

Last Feb. 22, one day after being acquired from the Cavaliers in the Ben Wallace trade, Larry Hughes stated his intentions clearly.

"I plan to start," Hughes said then.

Fast forward to Friday, when newly acquired John Salmons could have talked about starting all 53 games for the Kings, a career-high average of 18.3 points and 37.4 minutes per game. Instead, the veteran swingman deferred.

"Whatever they want me to do, I'll do," Salmons said.

It's this type of attitude that has management convinced the acclimation of three new rotation players in Salmons, Brad Miller and Tim Thomas should go smoothly.

"I just have to prove myself on a good team," Salmons said.

The mild-mannered Salmons has started 170 of 494 career games. His scoring average has increased all but one season during his seven-year career and has jumped from 8.5 to 12.5 to 18.3 over the last three seasons.

"Last year, we had a lot of injuries and they put the ball in my hands and just let me play," Salmons said. "This year, I was starting again and for a long stretch, the offense was running through me. So I just had the opportunity."

Salmons, 29, would rather talk about his defense anyway.

"In Sacramento, I always had to guard the best wing player, and I always liked to take that challenge," he said. "There are some really, really good players out there."


'Uphill battle' for Miami Heat's James Jones

Heat forward James Jones said this season continues to be a ``constant uphill battle.''

Jones missed Saturday's game against Philadelphia with a bruised right hand and is questionable for Sunday's game in Orlando. He said he cannot shoot, dribble or grip a basketball, and that he would need at least one practice before playing.

If Jones is unable to play Sunday, his status would be in doubt for Tuesday's game against Detroit, because Miami is expected to be off Monday after back-to-back games.

Jones' hand still is swollen but he said it has gone down significantly since he injured it in a collision with Mike Miller during the third quarter of Wednesday's 111-104 loss to Minnesota.

''That's the closest I've come to crying in a long time,'' Jones said.

The bigger issue is when Miami's biggest free agent acquisition of last offseason will return to form. He was sidelined for three months after surgery to repair a ruptured tendon in his right wrist and has struggled in 16 games. He is shooting 30.8 percent from the field and 21.9 percent from beyond the arc.

''The goal is to have me ready for the postseason and for me to be able to contribute in a major way as the season comes to a close,'' said Jones, who added that his wrist still is regaining flexibility and needs six months to be ``completely healed.''

''It's growing pains; it's conditioning my wrist to work again,'' Jones said. ``Today it feels good, and tomorrow it's sore.''


Sanchez eager for Marlins' spring opener

JUPITER — Right-hander Anibal Sanchez won't be the Marlins' opening day starter next month, but he'll start their Grapefruit League opener Wednesday against the Cardinals.

"He's healthy. He's good to go,'' manager Fredi Gonzalez said Sunday.

For Sanchez, the opening-spring start is a huge mental lift for a pitcher who, this time a year ago, missed spring training while struggling through a slow recovery from shoulder surgery.

"I don't care if it's the first, second or third game. I just want to be ready for the season,'' he said.

Right-handers Ricky Nolasco and Josh Johnson are the leading contenders to start the Marlins' season opener April 6 against Washington. Both will pitch Tuesday in an intrasquad game behind the Marlins' clubhouse on Field 2.

Sanchez made his 2008 debut on July 31 and finished 2-5 with a 5.57 ERA. After one week of drills this spring, his teammates say he looks better than he did last year.

"The main thing that I've seen is that he trusts himself more than he did last year,'' said catcher John Baker.

"He was kind of throwing a little bit at the end of the year and thinking it might hurt. That's a tough mental obstacle to overcome, coming off of surgery. He has had time to prepare himself better. He feels better and he'll believe in himself more. It'll be fun to see him Wednesday.''

The Cardinals, who will be the home team, will throw Blake Hocksworth. The Marlins haven't announced who will start Thursday in Port St. Lucie against the Mets - Chris Volstad could get the call. The Mets will start Oliver Perez.

The Marlins will play their first game of the spring today in a six-inning intrasquad game around 10:30 a.m. on Field 2. Left-hander Sean West will start against right-hander Eulogio De La Cruz.


Burrell Getting to Know His New Team

PORT CHARLOTTE | The first step for Pat Burrell is learning the names of new teammates.

The next thing for Tampa Bay's biggest offseason acquisition is adjusting to his projected role with the Rays.

After spending most of the past decade as an everyday outfielder with the Philadelphia Phillies, the 32-year-old slugger is expected to be the primary designated hitter for the AL champions this season.

"I can't lie, it's different. Different faces, different everything," Burrell, three months removed from helping the Phillies beat the Rays in the World Series, said Monday. "But change is good. I'm really looking forward to getting this thing started."

One of the Rays' top priorities this winter was to add a power hitter to a lineup also featuring Carlos Pena, Evan Longoria, B.J. Upton and Carl Crawford. Burrell averaged 31 homers, 99 RBIs and 103 walks the past four seasons.

He also delivered a key hit in the World Series, doubling in the seventh inning of Game 5 to end an 0-for-13 skid. Eric Bruntlett pinch-ran for him and scored the winning run in the Phillies' clinching victory.

Now, he's looking to join Edgar Renteria, Gary Thomasson, Tommy John and Don Gullett as the only players since 1970 to face a team in the World Series and then play for that club the following season.

"Hey, that's part of it. The thing I keep thinking about is when you've been at a place like I was for a long time, you have a hard time turning the page and accepting some of the new things," Burrell said.

"It's going to be an adjustment period for me. But I tell you what, these guys have made it very easy for me as far as making me feel welcome. ... I couldn't be happier with what's happened as far as me getting here."

Burrell signed a $16 million, two-year contract in January after not being offered a new deal in Philadelphia, where he hit .257 with 251 homers and 827 RBIs over parts of nine seasons.

He reported to spring training in advance of Wednesday's first full-squad workout and is getting a feel for his new surroundings and teammates.
"Fortunately everybody's got their names on their back," said Burrell, who batted .250 with 33 homers and 86 RBIs in his final season with the Phillies.

He's eager to contribute any way he can with his team, noting the Rays didn't sign him because they needed someone to carry the offense.


Barton has less room for error

JUPITER, Fla. -- Outfielder Brian Barton is working without a net this spring.

A year after coming to the Cardinals via the Rule 5 Draft, Barton no longer holds the protected position that status affords. Last year, he had a roster spot to lose. This year, he has to win one. And with at least five other viable candidates for outfield jobs in Cardinals camp, his odds are long.

St. Louis selected Barton in the Rule 5 Draft in December 2007, bringing him to Spring Training 2008 to see what they had. Although Barton struggled in early drills, he played well in Grapefruit League games, making it easy to put him on the roster. And once he was there, he stayed. If a team wishes to send a Rule 5 player to the Minors, it must first offer him back to his previous club for $25,000.

Knowing they had a player with some value, the Cardinals never did that. This time around, though, Barton can be optioned to Triple-A Memphis just like any other player.

"It's a different situation for me," said the University of Miami product. "I know that I don't have to be up in the big leagues all year. I know that now I have to more, in a sense, earn my spot -- even though I felt last year I earned my spot. I felt last year I played well enough in the spring to show that I fit. To be in a position where it's the same thing, it's nothing new to me. I've been in this position all of my career. So I'm not surprised by being in this position."

Rick Ankiel and Ryan Ludwick are on the club. Skip Schumaker is too, though he might make it as a second baseman rather than an outfielder. But if Schumaker converts to the keystone, the likely beneficiary of that move is top prospect Colby Rasmus, not Barton. A healthy and even somewhat productive spring gets Chris Duncan on the roster. And Joe Mather's impressive 2008 debut likely puts him ahead of Barton on the depth chart as well.

Even if it's all the same guys in the competition, the hill is steeper for Barton this spring.

"He's 180 degrees [away from last spring]," said manager Tony La Russa. "He's going to get the same kind of playing time, but [this year] is to make the club vs. we tried to add him to the organization. So the stakes are different. But he's going about it good. His bat's got good life. He's running well. I think he'll have a good spring and make it tough."

But that, in a nutshell, is the difference. A good spring for Barton last year made it easy. This year, a good spring makes the decision difficult. A good spring forces him into the conversation, rather than ticketing him for Triple-A Memphis.

Not that Barton couldn't benefit from a stint at Triple-A. He still has only 323 at-bats above Double-A. Then again, he'll turn 27 before the season's first month is over, so the clock is ticking.

"He hasn't played that much," La Russa said. "He did a nice job coming off the bench, but for his development it wouldn't be a great way to spend the '09 season. He probably would prefer it, because of the salary and everything. But he is a right-handed-hitting outfielder, and that's a commodity that's important on our club."

It's that right-handedness that may help Barton most. Ankiel, Duncan, Rasmus and Schumaker all hit from the left side. Mather and Ludwick swing righty. Barton also brings impressive on-base ability, having posted a career .413 OBP in the Minors and .354 as a rookie in the big leagues. That could get him some at-bats as a leadoff man against left-handed pitching.

Barton's bat isn't really the question, though. The Cardinals would like to see more from him defensively, and he did progress in that regard in 2008.

"They're going to pitch him a little different because they know him a little better, so [he will need to] make adjustments," La Russa said. "I know he runs well. As the season went on, he really got more confident defensively. We'll see how he's throwing, just gauge him as a player."

Barton believes that all told, he has the skills to impress and win a spot. But he also knows how things stack up right now.

"I know that in a lot of people's eyes, it seems like I'm not in the mix," he said. "But the same thing happened last year. I wasn't in the mix, in a lot of people's eyes. It was the same competition going into last year. I started out struggling a little bit. I was dealing with [recovery from knee surgery]. But when it was time to perform, I came out and did what I had to do."

So when Grapefruit League games start Tuesday, he'll be looking for a repeat performance.

"Everything [in 2008] was a learning experience," he said. "I drew a lot from it. This year is another one. I'm just hoping to avoid the sophomore jinx. I guess in my case the sophomore jinx would be not being up here."