Unhappy campers


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Jan 22, 2006
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Unhappy campers
Several key veterans displeased with contracts

We've hit mid-June, which means NFL fans are about to go through the slowest four-week stretch of the year: the span that stretches from the end of offseason workouts to the start of training camps. But before the slow period begins, there's some unfinished business around the league that's worth discussing. Namely, a handful of disgruntled veterans have expressed their discontent of late. Here are their situations and my thoughts on how they'll be resolved.

1.Deion Branch, wide receiver, New England: He's been with the Patriots long enough to know that the club is reluctant to hand out huge extensions. When it comes to paying role players, they're especially stingy, and that's exactly the situation Branch is in. Yes, he delivers in the postseason. But it's hard to defend a receiver who has been so injury-prone that he's played a full season only once in his four-year career. Even though the Patriots are thin at the position, Branch is about to learn what more established, Pro Bowl-caliber players such as Adam Vinatieri, Ty Law and Willie McGinest have learned in New England: Everybody on that roster is expendable except for one man. That makes it hard to think that Branch will be any happier with his contract when this season begins.

2. Nathan Vasher, cornerback, Chicago: Now this is a player with a legitimate beef. Vasher is a Pro Bowl-caliber player stuck with a backup's salary. I don't think the Bears should pay him megabucks, but he certainly deserves more than the $425,000 he's scheduled to make this season. He picked off eight passes last season. His instincts and smarts make him a perfect fit for the Bears' cover-two defensive scheme. And please don't tell me the Bears have leverage because they signed free-agent cornerback Ricky Manning. If Manning was a legitimate starter, he would still be in Carolina. The Bears will have to pay Vasher sooner or later, and his price tag is only going to increase as time progresses.

3. Ashley Lelie, receiver, Denver: Another receiver who has lost sight of his value, Lelie is determined to hold out until the Broncos deal him. He's making a huge mistake. Even with Javon Walker joining the Broncos in a trade with Green Bay, Lelie could use another season in Denver to prove his value as a third receiver. He then could pursue a nice payday as an unrestricted free agent in 2007. Look, David Givens scored a five-year, $24 million deal and a $6 million bonus in Tennessee, and Lelie's career numbers are very similar. Givens has 158 receptions, 2,214 yards and 12 touchdowns in four seasons; Lelie has 168 receptions, 3,007 yards and 12 scores over the same four-year span. But this has gotten personal, and Lelie will soon discover that his emotions aren't helping him. I'll bet that he'll be in Denver next season.

4. Lance Briggs, outside linebacker, Chicago: This isn't a good trend for Bears fans. Like Vasher, Briggs is trying to turn a breakout season in '05 into a nice extension. And like Vasher, Briggs is an integral part of the defense. Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher may be the headliner, but the cover-two scheme relies on a speedy weakside linebacker like Briggs to make a ton of plays. This dude is such a rising star that Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer called him the best weakside linebacker in football last season. The downside for Briggs? He has to play at least six games this season to qualify for unrestricted free agency. My gut tells me there could be a franchise or a transition tag waiting for him after this season ends.

5. Thomas Jones, running back, Chicago: Here's one disgruntled Bear who really is in a bad spot. Though Jones ran for a career-high 1,335 yards last season, he knows that Chicago drafted Cedric Benson in 2005 to be the feature back. Jones has been thinking about a trade since the season ended, preferably to a team running the West Coast offense. Now that he's avoided the team's offseason workout program, it's clear that he's down to his last desperate moves to making something happen. It won't work. The Bears will sell the public on the notion that it's a great deal to have two talented running backs. In reality, that's only true if both running backs are excited about sharing the load. That won't be the case in Chicago.
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