Adept enough to adapt?
Players feel the effect of coaching changes
The only thing that seems to stay the same in the NFL is change. Of the league's 32 teams, 11 named new head coaches this offseason, and for many of those clubs, that means a change in offensive and/or defensive style.
In Denver, Josh McDaniels will install a Patriotlike, three-receiver offense and a New England-based 3-4 defense.
In Detroit, Jim Schwartz plans to model things after what he learned from Bill Belichick in Cleveland and Jeff Fisher in Tennessee. That means getting bigger from the inside out.
In New York, Rex Ryan wants the Jets to play an attacking 3-4 defense, so things will look different from Eric Mangini's more conservative 3-4 approach.
Ditto in St. Louis, where Steve Spagnuolo will use parts of the Giants' attacking 4-3 blueprint to add some spark, and size, to the Rams' 4-3 alignment.
Even clubs that haven't had a head coaching change, like Green Bay, are in construction mode. First-year defensive coordinator Dom Capers is transitioning the team from a 4-3 to 3-4 defense.
Keeping up with the scheme changes is an important job, and it's one reason the position of pro personnel director is key. Sometimes a talented player is miscast in a new system and can be available in a trade, or a player is being asked to do things that don't fit his skill set, and while he's still talented, his production dips.
With this in mind, here are some highly touted players who will have to adjust to new systems:
Glenn Dorsey, DT, Kansas City: Dorsey was considered a steal as the fifth overall pick in 2008. At 6 feet 1 inch, 297 pounds, he fits best as a "3" technique, playing over the outside shoulder of the guard in a 4-3 alignment and shooting gaps. But with first-year general manager Scott Pioli on the case, the Chiefs would like to transition to a hybrid 3-4 defense with bigger players up front. Dorsey isn't big enough to be a nose when the Chiefs go 3-4, so he'd likely move to end, where he doesn't have the length to be a natural fit.
Matt Hasselbeck, QB, Seattle: Since entering the NFL as a sixth-round choice of the Packers, Hasselbeck has played solely in a West Coast offense that sets up the run by throwing the ball. The Seahawks, under first-year coach Jim Mora, are switching to a zone running scheme and plan to be more of a run-first team. The hope is that the passing game benefits with more play-action. Hasselbeck will have to prove he can connect on a consistent basis.
A.J. Hawk/Nick Barnett, LBs, Green Bay: With the Packers moving to a 3-4 scheme under Capers, Hawk and Barnett project to play inside linebacker, which will mean playing more downhill instead of sideline-to-sideline. Hawk played weak-side backer in the Packers' 4-3 defense, with Barnett in the middle, and they'll need to be physical enough to hold up in that role.
Adam Carriker, DT, St. Louis: Since selecting Carriker in the first round in 2007, the Rams have experimented with him at nose tackle and at the "3" technique tackle in the 4-3 defense. With Spagnuolo set to bring a Giants-like attacking 4-3 defense, combined with a bit of what first-year coordinator Ken Flajole knows from his time with the Panthers, the question remains whether Carriker is a better fit at the run-stuffing nose or the more pass-rushing "3" spot. He might find he's best as an end in a 3-4 defense.
Brandon Marshall, WR, Denver: McDaniels's offense is dynamic and demanding, requiring receivers to learn all spots, make mental as well as physical adjustments, and accept that the ball is going to the open man, not just the No. 1 man. Marshall, one of the game's most dynamic young pass-catchers, will be challenged to adapt.
David Harris, LB, NY Jets: A strong, disciplined inside linebacker in the Jets' old 3-4 alignment, the downhill-playing Harris will be teamed with Bart Scott in the middle of the new attacking scheme. Considering how Scott played with Ray Lewis in Baltimore, will Harris be the right complement in a similar 1-2 tandem?
Geoff Hangartner, C, Buffalo: Hangartner was signed as a free agent from Carolina with one primary thought in mind: The other three teams in the AFC East play a 3-4 defense and have big, sturdy nose tackles, so importing an intelligent, tough player in the pivot was imperative. Hangartner didn't see much 3-4 in the NFC South, but he'll have to learn quickly.
Tamba Hali, DE, Kansas City: The 2006 first-round pick has played end in the 4-3 his first three seasons, although he didn't look as explosive without Jared Allen on the opposite side last season. At 6-3, 275, he wouldn't be strong enough to play end in the 3-4 the Chiefs hope to transition to, so he's a candidate to make a Willie McGinest-like switch to outside linebacker.
Larry Foote, LB, Detroit: After starting the last five seasons at inside linebacker in the Steelers' 3-4 defense, Foote projects to middle linebacker in the Lions' 4-3. Foote was a two-down player last season - replaced by Lawrence Timmons in passing situations - but he'll have a chance to prove he can be a three-down option in Detroit.
D.J. Williams, LB, Denver: One of the NFL's most productive weak-side linebackers in recent years, the versatile Williams projects to move inside in the Broncos' 3-4 scheme. It will be a transition similar to what Roman Phifer, now a Broncos assistant, made when he signed with the Patriots in 2001. Williams won't have as much space to operate in the 3-4, and will have to play more downhill, but talented players like him usually find a way to make it work.
Costly change for assistantsThree questions for Larry Kennan, staff director of the NFL Coaches Association, on a story that resonated throughout the league's coaching ranks last week:
For the common fan, explain what has taken place with the league's assistant coaches that has them concerned.
LK: "At the league meetings about six weeks ago, the owners decided to make our pension, supplemental pension, and our 401(k) plans non-mandatory. What they said was that if a team wanted to keep the plan as it is, they could. If they wanted to keep any part of it as is, they could. Or if they wanted to opt out of any part or all of it, they could, and they could have their own plans or not . . . We felt really betrayed because there had been no advance warning of any kind that this was a possibility. We were also miffed that the decision was made after everybody in the league had signed their contracts for 2009, and all the staffs were in place. One of the reasons we coach in the NFL, rather than college, is because the NFL has a wonderful retirement plan."
How does this affect coaches in New England?
LK: "There are nine teams to my knowledge that have opted out of the NFL pension as we know it, and New England is one of them. We don't know what to expect. Some of the owners have said, 'We will give you a pension plan that is every bit as good as what you had.' So we're not passing judgment on them because maybe they will. We don't know how the new plan will affect Patriots coaches, but what we do know is that it's going to make portability in the league, and going from team to team, a different deal now because you have to check and see what type of retirement plan they have."
Where do you see this headed?
LK: "I don't know. In all the time I've been doing this, I've never seen coaches this upset . . . They don't trust the owners as a group. I'm not going to say there aren't owners we can't trust because there are some wonderful owners . . . But when the 32 owners allow this to happen and pass this resolution and allow this to change, it's hard to trust the league and the owners as a group. If we are valuable employees like they say we are, they shouldn't treat us like second-class citizens. My words, it would seem to me like it's a total lack of respect for the people who work for the organizations."
Patriots should be coming to a Wilfork in the roadThe update on a contract extension for Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork looks like this: No update.
The sides have yet to reopen talks.
The Patriots presumably wanted to devote their attention to free agency and the draft, and now that those have passed and the pace of the offseason has slowed, there is an opening to address other pressing business matters.
Wilfork, who enters the final year of his contract, is one of their top priorities.
When factoring in his strong performance as an anchor in the team's 3-4 defense, and the contract situations of other 2004 first-round picks, Wilfork brings a convincing case to the negotiating table.
A review of NFL Players Association documents shows that of the 32 first-round draft choices in 2004, only three are still playing under their original rookie contracts: Wilfork, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, and Patriots tight end Benjamin Watson.
Eighteen first-round picks have either had their contracts extended with their original team, were traded and had their contract extended with a new team, or reached free agency and signed a new deal with their original team.
One player, Texans cornerback Dunta Robinson, has been assigned the franchise tag this year.
As for Wilfork, he signed a six-year deal as a rookie, which meant that he received more up-front signing bonus money than players who signed five-year deals. While that must be factored into the equation, it's still hard to imagine the sides won't agree that now is the time to strike a deal.
It's just a matter of carving out the time to meet.
Mike Reiss can be reached at email@example.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.