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Mort on Alexander and James (insider)


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May 31, 2003
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It's a remarkable development that is almost underplayed as we near the 2005 NFL draft.

Edgerrin James and Shaun Alexander, two of the NFL's top running backs, are available for trade and nobody wants them.

Even more remarkable is that the Colts and the Seahawks might not even demand a first-round pick in this month's draft to move them.

The Colts appear willing to move James for about the same price as when they moved Marshall Faulk to the St. Louis Rams in 1999 (second- and fifth-round draft picks). GM Bill Polian replaced Faulk with the team's first pick, when he astutely judged that James would be a better fit for the Colts than Ricky Williams.

Alexander has never had a cozy relationship with Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren, although the running back insists (he was emphatic to me during Pro Bowl week) that's a misimpression.

Yet, the Seahawks are dropping hints to teams that they, too, are willing to move Alexander for less than a first-rounder this year. New GM Tim Ruskell might even take a pick in next year's draft, according to league sources.

What gives? It's hard to make the argument that James and Alexander are on the downside of their careers. James is coming off a 2004 season in which he produced 2,031 total yards, rushing for 1,548 and receiving for 483. Alexander had his best year, running for 1,696 yards and scoring 20 touchdowns as a rusher (16) and receiver (4).

So, here's the deal, as explained by a few sources from teams that certainly could use a premier runner:

Franchise tag: James and Alexander have been blocked from free agency. It's a deterrent, a red flag that screams that James and Alexander want blockbuster money and the Colts and Seahawks want compensation.

"When you sit and do your budget as a team before March 1 and you don't allow for a $12 million signing bonus like these guys undoubtedly want, it's just a tough, tough deal," said one team source.

Character flaws: This is a funny one because other than relatively minor blips, neither James nor Alexander has done anything to truly embarrass himself or his organization.

"True," said a coach, "but for the amount of money and draft picks you're investing in them, you look for things and some of those things bother you. Alexander isn't as consistent as you want, so you wonder what that's all about, and then he made a stink at the end of the season about not getting the rushing title when his team is trying to win a division. If he's so wonderful, why don't the Seahawks want him?

"James isn't an offseason guy. He's always doing his own thing. If he's producing, it sounds like nit-picking, but there are some things about team building that you get in the offseason. It's also a chance to work on putting in some new wrinkles before you get to training camp. He's never there for the Colts. There's a little of that malcontent image, and he's one of those guys that makes you think that he doesn't love the game, that he might even retire early on you."

Shelf life: Nobody is punished more than running backs. James is entering his seventh year in the NFL and Alexander his sixth.

"James has already had one ACL surgery and it took him two years to get back," said another source. "Alexander's been healthy, but these guys only have so many miles in their treads. And it takes a hungry, hungry back to run with the same intensity after he gets the big contract. Regardless of position, a lot of these guys don't perform at the same level once they get their big contract. There are some exceptions – Marshall Faulk got even better with the Rams, but he wasn't a free agent when he was traded. The money makes you hesitate."

Travis Henry: The Buffalo Bills back isn't of quite the same stature as James and Alexander, but he is available for a second-round pick and has a year left on his contract at modest money.

“ James has already had one ACL surgery and it took him two years to get back. Alexander's been healthy, but these guys only have so many miles in their treads. â€Â
 NFL source

"Here's a tough guy who has run for over 1,300 yards twice, so you feel like you can get value for at least a season," said a source. "You probably can do a reasonable deal on an extension, although the Raiders didn't do anybody favors when they signed LaMont Jordan to that big contract. So even Henry isn't a hot item."

He's so lukewarm that only one team, the Cardinals, is in play at the moment. The Seahawks and Colts also could have interest if James and Alexander are moved at the last minute.

The draft: There are three highly rated backs available this year in Auburn's Carnell "Cadillac" Williams and Ronnie Brown and Cedric Benson of Texas.

"You basically get fresher legs and while they'll be expensive, they won't cost as much as James and Alexander," said a source. "Where did the Colts get James and where did the Seahawks get Alexander? In the draft. Get your own guys."

The Redskins factor: If only the Redskins and owner Daniel Snyder were in play, we'd have a different picture. But the 'Skins struck for their back last year when they acquired Clinton Portis from the Broncos. This year, the market is not flooded with teams in search of a premier runner.

Of the 32 teams, you can count only three that appear in dire need of a back – Arizona, Miami and Tampa Bay. All three pick in the top eight, so they have a chance to fulfill their needs with Benson, Brown and Williams.

Even then, the Dolphins may be reluctant to take a back at No. 2 because of the price tag – as much as $15 million in guaranteed bonuses.

There is a second tier of teams that could use a back – the Eagles, Panthers, Bears and Titans. The Vikings wouldn't surprise me, either, if they grabbed one because Michael Bennett and Onterrio Smith have disappointed more than delivered.

Poker faces: Let's allow that we're playing a game of football poker and that draft day could still produce some drama in which James, Alexander and Henry are traded. Two teams come to mind.

If the Buccaneers surprise everyone by taking a quarterback, or even a receiver, they have a bundle (11) of draft picks to wheel and deal for one of the backs, not to mention the latitude of utilizing next year's draft picks. Bucs coach Jon Gruden always has shown a willingness to take on veteran players, even when their best years are behind them. What the Bucs don't have is salary-cap space to accommodate a large contract, not to mention the dubious task of signing a top-five pick.

The Eagles are really interesting. They have 13 picks in this draft and could collect another second- or third-rounder if they trade Corey Simon to Baltimore. Brian Westbrook is a productive back, but he's still not a classic feature back, and the Eagles have an underrated offensive line that will be even stronger in '05 with last year's top choice, G-T Shawn Andrews, coming back from a preseason broken leg. The Eagles also have relatively good cap space and have never been shy to strike for a big-timer – Terrell Owens and Jevon Kearse being last season's acquisitions.

The Cardinals clearly are players, primarily for Henry. Cards coach Dennis Green is putting together an interesting puzzle that could surprise this season. If the Cards don't use the No. 8 overall pick on Benson, Brown or Williams, they will have to rethink their reluctance to swap second-round slots with the Bills in order to consummate a trade.

Don't fall asleep. That's when things happen.
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