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AFC Whispers

Wayne could replace Jackson in San Diego

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By PFW staff

Following are some whispers we've been hearing from around the AFC:

• If Vincent Jackson departs in free agency, the Chargers are going to need a No. 1 wide receiver. According to one team insider, that person could be Reggie Wayne, who is a free agent after 11 seasons with the Colts. Wayne played in a vertical passing game in Indianapolis similar to the one that the Chargers run, and he could step right in and be a go-to guy for Philip Rivers.

• We hear that the Raiders' signing of free agent CB Brandon Underwood is very low-risk. Because Underwood has had some off-field troubles, he will be on a short leash, knowing that Oakland is likely his last chance to prove himself. The Raiders are in desperate need of quality corners, so signing a player like Underwood, with upside and the motivation to excel, could work out well.

• According to sources, the Broncos are strongly considering using the franchise tag on PK Matt Prater. However, they will not do anything until Mike Sullivan, who was recently hired as director of football administration for the team, begins his job. The source told PFW that Sullivan will be the man in the Denver front office to oversee the salary cap and will have the final say about whether franchising Prater is the right move for the team.

• We heard during the season what kind of impact Bills LB Nick Barnett was having as a leader off the field, and defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt confirmed how crucial Barnett is to the defense. "The beautiful thing about Nick is really nothing has to change for Nick," Wannstedt told reporters Thursday when asked about Barnett fitting in the team's new 4-3 scheme. He said Barnett will play outside in the 4-3 and inside in the team's nickel; last season Barnett played inside in the 3-4. "That's the exciting thing about Nick Barnett. He's one of those few linebackers that legitimately is a three-down player," he added.

• The Patriots have an interesting decision to make at center this offseason, as both Dan Koppen and Dan Connolly are free agents. Koppen entered 2011 having missed only one start in the previous five seasons, but he suffered a season-ending injury in Week One. Connolly was his main replacement, though Nick McDonald and Ryan Wendell also got starts. We hear that Connolly is likely not a long-term starter but is still a valuable, versatile lineman. Recent comments by Koppen indicate the veteran is prepared for free agency. "Do I want to stay here and play? Yeah, absolutely, I'd love to come back here and play. But I'm not shut off to the idea of going other places or seeing the opportunities that may present themselves when the free-agency period comes," Koppen told the Boston Herald this week. Koppen became a forgotten man this season, but the Pats could re-sign him to a one-year deal. It's also a draft that's strong on interior offensive linemen, so the Patriots have options.

• The way we hear it, the sense is that if Steelers UFA CB William Gay were to re-sign, he would retain his starting job. That said, the club does like second-year CB Cortez Allen quite a bit, and fourth-year pro Keenan Lewis came on last season, too.

• Two positions of need for the Steelers, the way we hear it, are fullback and tight end. The feeling is the club needs more options at tight end. The club didn't have a true fullback on the roster last season, with TE David Johnson serving in that role.

• Return specialist shapes up as an offseason need for Baltimore. KR David Reed struggled with fumbles last season, then suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in Week 16. PR Lardarius Webb took a major step forward at cornerback in 2011, becoming a vital part of the defense. That said, both players have shown promise as returners, with Reed gaining close to 30 yards per kickoff return in each of his first two NFL seasons and Webb having two career return scores (one kickoff, one punt) to his credit. However, more depth at the returner spots could be helpful, considering the circumstances.

• It is unlikely that Titans RB Chris Johnson won't improve upon his lackluster 2011 campaign, the way we hear it. The biggest thing going for Johnson will be a full offseason working with the team. A team source recently indicated that Johnson's conditioning played as large of a role in his poor performance last season as anything. Although the team's blocking wasn't great and other factors contributed, we hear he simply was out of shape until the second half, when he strung a few solid games together, albeit against poor defenses.

• Don't be shocked when Jaguars GM Gene Smith pulls another surprise on Draft Day. He has shown that he is more than willing to go against conventional wisdom, and he will get the best available player at No. 7 — even if it means picking a defensive player when there are so many needs on the other side of the ball. Smith could also look to bolster the offensive line, despite the fact he has repeatedly gone back to the well at that area of the team.

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