Posted: 9:58 am Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

NFL Combine Buzz: Peyton Manning, not Robert Griffin III, still the Miami Dolphins’ top priority, and other notes from across the league 

By Post Staff

Most general managers and head coaches from the 32 NFL teams addressed the media last weekend at the NFL Combine, to discuss not only their thoughts on this year’s NFL Draft prospects, but also about their team’s plans heading into free agency, which begins March 13.

Here are 24 notes from around the league, many of which pertain to the Dolphins:

1. Peyton Manning will continue to be the Dolphins No. 1 priority until his situation is resolved. And many insiders, including John Clayton and Chris Mortensen, are warming to the idea that the Dolphins are the favorite to land him if he is cut. Donovan McNabb said Monday on D.C. radio that “I don’t see Peyton ending up in Washington.” Jets head coach Rex Ryan and Arizona GM Rod Graves both refused to shoot down speculation that their teams will be in the hunt. Kansas City and Seattle will pursue, but seem unlikely, given that they often play games in inclement weather (though Seattle does have over $25 million in salary cap space). Cleveland probably won’t pursue because it appears to be in the driver’s seat for Robert Griffin III, though the St. Louis Post-Dispatch considers the Redskins “the early front-runner” for RG3. Minnesota, which plays in a dome and has Christian Ponder penciled in as the starter, is a Wild Card.

2. Dolphins fans should be most worried about the Cardinals in the competition to sign Manning. They also have good weather, a talented receiver (Larry Fitzgerald) and play in a dome. And if they cut Kevin Kolb before March 17, they can avoid paying him a $7 million roster bonus, and move on after paying him $12 million for one year (plus giving up a second-round pick and CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie). Cutting bait with Kolb and then winning a bidding war for Manning seems out of character for Cardinals owner Bill Bidwell, but you can’t count it out.

3. One factor that could work in Miami’s favor: The Dolphins play at Indianapolis in 2012. A couple of Colts beat writers said the ultra-competitive Manning will embrace the opportunity to “stick it up their a**” if he is cut.

4. One team that won’t be in the Manning hunt: Tennessee. Titans fans were the first to erect Peyton Manning billboards, but head coach Mike Munchak said Jake Locker and Matt Hasselbeck will compete for the starting job during minicamps.

5. If the Dolphins can’t get Peyton, they probably won’t have much competition for Matt Flynn. The only other teams who likely will be interested – Washington, which runs a West Coast Offense, and Seattle, whose GM (John Schneider) helped draft Flynn. But neither the Redskins or Seahawks want to break the bank for Flynn, either.

6. Packers GM Ted Thompson declined to say whether his team will use the franchise tag on Flynn so as to trade him, but ESPNMilwaukee.com reported that the Packers will not do so. Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy said Flynn “is ready to be an NFL starter. … He’s very consistent, the same guy every day. I’m talking about emotionally, mentally and physically. He can make all the throws, does a very good job of running the system. The same game plan that we had in for Aaron Rodgers, we went with the some one with his opportunities. I think he’s very savvy in the pocket, and people underestimate his athletic ability.”

7. It’s no secret that the Rams want to trade the No. 2 pick to a team who wants RG3. New coach Jeff Fisher said that the Rams will “listen to whoever’s willing to talk. … We have a lot of options, and we’re going to be prepared to do whatever.” Yes, the Dolphins have contacted the Rams. So have several other teams. The Dolphins view RG3 as a contingency plan in case they can’t get Manning or Flynn, because Cleveland appears to be in the driver’s seat, with the fourth and 22nd picks in this year’s draft (St. Louis could still get the player it wants (Justin Blackmon is the favorite) with the fourth pick, but probably not with the Dolphins’ eighth pick). The Dolphins would have to trade away nearly their entire stock of 2012 draft picks plus next year’s first-rounder to best the Browns’ offer, and that’s not in Jeff Ireland’s DNA. Washington might be crazy enough to pull off a Herschel Walker-type trade, but not Miami. Fisher said the idea of trading Sam Bradford and taking RG3 “wouldn’t be an option.”

8. The Chiefs are hot on the QB trail, as well. They interviewed RG3 at the Combine (as well as almost every QB prospect), and Romeo Crennel said the team would be “crazy not to consider” Peyton, a comment which won’t be construed as tampering. Crennel’s support of Matt Cassel is tepid, at best, saying “until we get another quarterback on the team, Cassel is the guy.” Ouch. Kyle Orton and Chad Henne will be two options to sign if the Chiefs don’t get Manning, Flynn or RG3, but Crennel said he learned an important lesson from his time as head coach in Cleveland: “Try to avoid a quarterback controversy, for one. That’s the key.” Cassel’s days in Kansas City may be numbered.

9. Another team that won’t be in the quarterback hunt – San Francisco, which potentially would have been an attractive landing spot for Manning. “We’re very confident in Alex (Smith),” GM Trent Baalke said of his quarterback, who is an unrestricted free agent. “Our confidence in his has not wavered at all.”

10. Speaking of QBs, expect the Broncos to give Tim Tebow the starting job to start the season, but with no guarantees about keeping his job. “I was really happy with his progress,” John Elway said. “But we also want to see strides in Tim and his ability to get better at throwing the football downfield from the pocket. We just feel that’s something we have to do to get better as an offense.” Expect the Broncos to prepare for the future by taking a quarterback with their second- or third-round draft pick. Denver also could be a landing spot for Henne as Tebow’s backup.

11. As of Saturday, 30 of the 32 NFL teams requested to roll over their unused 2011 salary cap space to 2012. The Dolphins were one of those teams, giving Ireland an additional $9.05 million to play with this year.

12. Ireland believes the three most important positions on the football field are: Quarterback, pass rusher and cornerback. Coincidentally, the Dolphins need help at all three positions. Their success in free agency with Manning or Flynn will ultimately determine their draft strategy, but assuming they land one of those guys, expect the Dolphins to pick an elite cornerback or pass rusher in round 1, draft the other position in round 2, and draft a quarterback to sit and develop behind Manning/Flynn in rounds 3-4. The Dolphins, knowing that the Manning or Flynn era could be short-lived, believe in the “double-down” concept this year at quarterback.

13. Why is cornerback a need for Miami? For one, the Dolphins simply need a body, as nickel corner Will Allen is a free agent, and second-year vet Jimmy Wilson may not be ready to handle the third cornerback role. Two, Sean Smith is entering his contract year, and his future with the team has not been determined. Three, Smith has the skillset to potentially be an excellent free safety, which is also a position of need for the Dolphins. Pahokee’s Janoris Jenkins, an elite talent who has had off-field issues, would be a steal if the Dolphins could get him in the second round.

14. The Lions and Panthers are very much in the market for cornerbacks, and the Chiefs still hope to bring back coveted free agent Brandon Carr, though the Cowboys are reportedly the front-runner to land him. The 49ers will do “everything it can” to retain CB Carlos Rogers, Baalke said. Cortland Finnegan to the Lions, where he will reunite with former Titans DC Jim Schwartz, makes too much sense.

15. Teams that are looking for outside pass rushers, in addition to the Dolphins: Seahawks, Falcons, Bills, Titans, Chiefs, Panthers, Jets, Texans.

16. The Dolphins will likely have to find an elite pass rusher in the draft, as “those guys usually don’t get to the free agent market,” Titans GM Ruston Webster said. Houston’s Mario Williams will be too expensive (his franchise tag number is close to $22 million) and Houston GM Rick Smith said “we’re working hard to figure out a way” to bring him back. Detroit GM Martin Mayhew said “it’s hard to let a guy like Cliff Avril go,” and will likely use the franchise tag on him. The Colts will find a way to keep Robert Mathis, and could use the tag on him, as well. Graves said the Cardinals wants to get a long-term deal done with Calais Campbell “sooner rather than later.” Falcons DE John Abraham said he wants $12 million per year, which would price him out of Miami, and Jaguars DE Jeremy Mincey has received interest from five teams, but the Dolphins aren’t one.

17. The Vikings are praying that the Rams somehow keep the No. 2 pick and use it on Blackmon or LT Matt Kalil. Minnesota GM Rick Spielman will “definitely” try to trade out of the No. 3 pick, but assuming the Rams pull off a deal, the Vikings will stick at No. 3, and Kalil is likely the pick.

18. Speaking of the Vikings, coach Leslie Frazier said RB Adrian Peterson, who tore his ACL in Week 16, wants to start running by the end of this week but the team will likely keep him off the field for a couple more weeks. “He feels like he’s ahead of schedule, but we do have to temper his emotions at times,” Frazier said. And Percy Harvin’s migraine problem, which forced him to miss games at the University of Florida and during his first two NFL seasons, seems to have subsided. “We had no episodes during the course of the season, which was a first,” Frazier said. “That really contributed to him having such an outstanding all-around season.”

19. Other running back news: Raiders coach Dennis Allen said Darren McFadden, who missed the last nine games of the season with a Lisfranc fracture in his foot, “will be ready to go whenever we get ready to kick off the season.” Schneider said the Seahawks have had “great discussions” with Marshawn Lynch and Pete Carroll said the team has “big plans for him being with us.” Houston may have to use the franchise tag on Arian Foster. Falcons coach Mike Smith said Michael Turner, who has cracked 300 carries in all three of his healthy seasons in Atlanta, will be on a “pitch count” this year. And Chiefs GM Scott Pioli said Jamaal Charles, who tore his ACL in September, “should be ready. We got to see him last week, and everybody feels pretty confident he will be fine.”

20. Wide receiver news: The Patriots are expected to use the franchise tag on Wes Welker, which isn’t surprising. What is surprising is that the Steelers, who entered the offseason $20 million over the salary cap, believe they can bring back Mike Wallace, who is a restricted free agent. Even with the first-round tender, it is expected that a team picking in the back of the first round (Patriots, Ravens) would forfeit the pick in order to sign one of the league’s best vertical threats. Steelers GM Kevin Colbert said “there’s always a franchise (tag) possibility,” which would require the Steelers to clear out even more salary cap room, but “we’re going to do everything we can to make sure Mike Wallace remains a Pittsburgh Steeler. I think that’s Mike’s belief as well.” The Chiefs “would definitely like to have Dwayne Bowe back,” Crennel said, and could use the franchise tag. The Bills, however, seem resigned to losing Stevie Johnson. “We hope it works out, but it’s business,” coach Chan Gailey said.

21. Jeff Fisher, who chose the Rams over the Dolphins, on Miami’s outlook: “I think they’ve got a chance to be outstanding. You watch the way that team played all year and overcame some things. They’ve got an outstanding young roster. And Jeff’s (Ireland) a very, very talented evaluator. They’ll compete in that division.” He also poo-poo’d the idea that he chose St. Louis over Miami because the Dolphins don’t have a good quarterback situation. “Matt Moore’s a good football player,” Fisher said. “You can win with him. So the perception that there’s a tremendous need at that position I think is generated from the outside.”

22. Giants GM Jerry Reese won’t take credit for “discovering” Victor Cruz, the former practice squad player who broke out for 82 catches, 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns this year. “We had him (rated) just like everyone else – undrafted local free agent,” Reese said. “If he wasn’t a local free agent, obviously we wouldn’t have brought him in. You get lucky like that sometimes in scouting.”

23. Jets coach Rex Ryan said it was a “huge mistake” to make a Super Bowl guarantee at last year’s Combine. “I really thought it would be a thing that would actually motivate our team,” he said. “But in hindsight I think it put undue pressure on our team, and we kind of lost focus.”

24. These aren’t Al Davis’ Raiders, anymore. Said Allen, the new head coach: “We’re not going to take guys just because they run real fast. Because that doesn’t co-relate to being a good football player.” The Raiders under Davis selected the Combine’s fastest players in each of the past three years: (DeMarcus Van Dyke, Jacoby Ford, Darrius Heyward-Bey).

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