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Eighteen thoughts, minus the Manning touch

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Dan Arkush
Executive editor

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By Dan Arkush

Is there anything else in the NFL really worth pondering more than future first-ballot Hall of Famer Peyton Manning having become a horse of a different color, trading Colt blue for Bronco orange?

Clearly, the NFL remains Peyton's place first and foremost, with the domino effect triggered by his agreement with the Broncos late Monday morning continuing to be the league's hottest story.

But in this Twitter-dominated, short-attention-span pro football world we live in, Manning's arrival in Denver will become "yesterday's news" much sooner than later — an observation that sets the table for a smorgasbord of reflections on some other pretty interesting things that been going on in the NFL that actually don't involve Manning.

Allowing myself just one peripheral reference to the four-time league MVP and most intriguing free agent in league history, I offer you "18" such reflections:

(1) Something tells me that significant NFL trade winds have not stopped blowing. The way I see it, there are two trades that have taken place so far this offseason that match all the free-agent moves made in the last week put together, in terms of impact. The first trade was the blockbuster deal between the Rams and Redskins that netted St. Louis three first-round draft picks for the price of one. It also enables Washington to use the No. 2 pick in the 2012 draft on Baylor bombshell Robert Griffin III — and triggered quite the hissy-fit from Browns bigwig Mike Holmgren. The second trade was the Bears-Dolphins deal in which the Bears picked up WR Brandon Marshall, a bona fide No. 1 receiver who has been reunited with ex-Bronco teammate Jay Cutler. Eyebrows around the league were immediately raised to the rafters when it was revealed that all the Bears had to give up for Marshall was a pair of third-round draft picks. Then they were raised even further when it was learned that Marshall was involved in an alleged nightclub altercation in New York City the weekend before his trade that no doubt increased Miami's willingness to send him packing. Yes, Marshall's off-field history is cause for concern. But he also is a proven commodity and a far better player than any of the other wideouts available this offseason. New Bears GM Phil Emery, who had been keeping the lowest of profiles, deserves big-time kudos for aggressively filling the Bears' biggest need for what seems like forever. I would not be surprised by a couple of more big-impact trades by other teams involving noteworthy players in the next month. Keep an eye on Steelers RFA WR Mike Wallace and Colts DE Dwight Freeney, among others.

(2) Getting back to the Bears, I would have to consider them the big winners so far by a pretty wide margin as far as offseason additions are concerned. In addition to landing Marshall, they fortified the QB position behind Cutler with the signings of veterans Jason Campbell and Josh McCown — a prudent move if there ever was one after what happened to the Bears last season once Cutler got cut down. The under-the-radar signings of Blake Costanzo and Eric Weems that strengthened the Bears' always-stalwart special teams are also worthy of special mention.            

(3) Excuse me if I root long and hard for Bills 93-year-old owner Ralph Wilson's decision to make Mario Williams the richest defensive player in NFL history ($50 million guaranteed over six years) to lead directly to a playoff berth. With Williams, the 2006 No. 1 draft pick, joining a D-line also including DT Kyle Williams and 2011 No. 1 pick Marcell Dareus, I think the Bills could get off to another surprisingly fast start, but not crash and burn like they did last season, when they were hit harder by key injuries than perhaps any other team in the league.

(4) I am not nearly as enamored with the Buccaneers' big-buck free-agent activity. I have never been a big Vincent Jackson fan and would hardly be surprised if the former Chargers wideout ends up being this year's biggest free-agent bust. On the other hand, with ex-Saint Carl Nicks being added to an offensive line already featuring Davin Joseph, I believe the Bucs have the NFL's best starting OG combo bar none.

(5) Another tremendous signing, I believe, was the Chiefs' addition of ex-Browns RB Peyton Hillis. As much as anything, Hillis needed a change of scenery. If Jamaal Charles is fully recovered from the torn ACL that shut him down early last season, Charles and Hillis could give the Chiefs quite the 1-2 punch at running back. Until further notice, K.C. is my favorite to win the AFC West in 2012. 

(6) Don't be surprised if a looming lawsuit by the Cowboys and Redskins challenging the cap-money penalties the league slapped them with just before this year's free-agent period began becomes an increasingly hot topic in the coming weeks. Prepare for some vintage grandstanding from Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, although I actually think Dallas and Washington were victimized by some pretty unfair timing.

(7) Speaking of the NFC East, I venture to say it has received the least bang for its free-agent bucks of all the NFL divisions up to now. I can certainly understand the Eagles taking a much more cautious approach and concentrating on re-signing key players (WR DeSean Jackson, DE Trent Cole, OG Evan Mathis) after last year's alleged "Dream Team" turned out to be a nightmare for three-quarters of the 2011 campaign. But I thought the Cowboys greatly overpaid for Chiefs UFA CB Brandon Carr, and the same goes for the Redskins' investments in Colts UFA WR Pierre Garcon and Niners UFA WR Josh Morgan.

(8) Worthy of their own reflection in this column is the defending Super Bowl champion Giants, who have been relatively quiet on the free-agent front, despite the restructuring of Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning's contract that opened up $6.75 million in cap space (I have at least reserved the right to mention Peyton Manning's kin in this column if necessary). I think the Giants are worse off without WR Mario Manningham, who has a knack for coming up big when it counts most. But I do kind of like the low-risk signing of Cowboys UFA TE Martellus Bennett.

(9) I still really like the Texans heading into the 2012 season, so much so that I'm very tempted to make them my early AFC favorite to go to the Super Bowl. But I am a bit bothered by the loss of 40 percent of arguably the league's best offensive line last season following the free-agent defection of OG Mike Brisiel to Oakland and the release of OT Eric Winston, who signed with the Chiefs. At least the team saw fit to re-sign C Chris Myers, a solid player it could ill-afford to lose.

(10) Myers was widely considered the best center available in free agency, but my vote would have definitely gone to Scott Wells, who I think the Packers are going to miss a great deal more than they seem to be letting on. It's hard to find fault with anything Packers GM Ted Thompson does, but I don't get his reluctance to re-sign Wells because the cerebral center was over 30, especially since the 31-year-old Wells, who's entering his ninth season, is in excellent shape. As was the case with DE Cullen Jenkins on the other side of the ball last season, I think the Packers will end up regretting the loss of Wells more than a little.

(11) The Rams' signing of Wells to anchor their offensive line qualifies as one of the top signings this offseason, in my opinion. With every passing day, I find myself less concerned about the likely loss of new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams for a lengthy period, as the Rams have done nothing but steadily improve themselves since "Bountygate" was exposed. Of course, they still need more help in the worst way at wide receiver and defensive tackle.           

(12) After the Saints managed to find a way to re-sign WR Marques Colston and came up with a quality replacement for Pro Bowl OG Carl Nicks in ex-Raven Ben Grubbs, I was starting to think that the "Bountygate" fallout they are facing might not be as detrimental as I initially suspected. But with Drew Brees' contract concerns showing no signs of vanishing any time soon, I've changed my mind enough to make the Saints a long shot to return to the playoffs, and that's before even knowing how big a punch Roger Goodell is going to deliver down by the bayou probably a week or so from now.

(13) While there's no denying how quickly the free-agent waters have dried up at the majority of positions, I could see a fairly fruitful second wave at the RB position, where the likes of Benjarvus Green-Ellis, Michael Bush, Cedric Benson, Joseph Addai, Kevin Smith and Ryan Grant, among others, could still make their presence very much felt on new teams.

(14) Intent on rebuilding from the ground floor up, the challenge facing Chuck Pagano, the new Colts' head coach, and Ryan Grigson, the new Colts' GM, has been made a little less daunting by the re-signings of WR Reggie Wayne to provide a steady seasoned hand on offense and DE Robert Mathis to do the same thing on the other side of the ball.

(15) The perennially-under-the-radar Jaguars always manage to pique my curiosity for reasons I can't fully explain. Two things they've done that I like a lot are the signing of WR Laurent Robinson, who blossomed with the Cowboys last season and could be a very productive weapon if he can stay healthy, and the re-signing of DE Jeremy Mincey, a very underrated pass rusher (eight sacks in 2011).

(16) Will Matt Flynn follow in the footsteps of fellow ex-Packers QB Matt Hasselbeck in the Pacific Northwest? Despite starting only two games at the pro level, I have a strong feeling Flynn will eventually be as successful in Seattle as Hasselbeck was. Unlike Kevin Kolb, last year's "hot QB" on the market, I think Flynn will prove to be worth every penny Paul Allen paid for him, which ended up being a surprisingly reasonable salary compared to what Kolb got from the Cardinals last season.

(17) Does Lions WR Calvin Johnson deserve his whopping new contract? Just like Flynn, I'd say every penny. The Lions really haven't done squat in free-agency. But re-upping with "Megatron" long-term was more than enough worthwhile activity for Detroit in advance of the draft.

(18) Ah, the draft. We'll all be caught up in it to an extreme soon enough. What I am looking forward to the most in late April will be to see which "sleeper" quarterback in what has become a QB-driven league becomes this year's Andy Dalton. You've probably been hearing the name of Texas A&M Ryan Tannehill as a strong possibility to fill this particular bill. But I'm ending this column with another option that I fell in love with at the Combine — Michigan State's Kirk Cousins. I kid you not when I suggest keeping a very close eye on this kid. Now if you'll excuse me, I think the time is right to get myself back on the Manning track. Avoiding it for more than one day — or at the very least 18 hours — is a big-time challenge, to say the least.


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