NFL Notebook: Coverages catching up?

Percy Harvin (Tom Dahlin/Viking Update)

After a wild first week of kickoff returns, which Percy Harvin added to, the NFL kickoff coverage units seem to have caught up to the action. Return yardage is decreasing with each week. Plus, a look at how much the rookie salaries decreased this year, Jared Allen joining the sack parade and more.

Because of the rules change that moved the spot of the kickoff back to the 35-yard line this year, the kickoff has gotten more attention than usual, and been closely scrutinized by the competition committee. But an aspect of the kickoff that hasn't gotten much play since there were three returns for touchdowns in the first week of the season, is that the special teams coverage units, which didn't perform very well in Week 1, now seem to have settled in.

At least on kickoffs.

There has been just one return for a touchdown, by the New York Jets' Joe McKnight last Sunday night, since the first week of play. Since the opening week, when kickoff runbacks averaged 26.8 yards, the average has been just 23.5 yards. In just about any season, coverage groups typically suffer in the first few weeks of the schedule because of the turnover inherent to the units, and that was especially true this season, probably because of the lockout.

There was no offseason "shakedown" period for special teams and, while the preseason games provided an audition, the situation simply wasn't the same as in most years.

"It made a difference," said Jacksonville Pro Bowl special teams ace Montell Owens, who recently signed a three-year extension through 2015 that will pay him $9.3 million in new money. "You don't want to make excuses, but the lockout hurt, and it took a little while longer to get used to guys."

Kickoff returns have gone down every week, from an average of 26.8 yards in Week 1, to 24.05 yards in Week 2, to 23.19 yards in Week 3, and 23.17 yards last weekend. Ironically, there were fewer touchbacks last weekend, 44.4 percent, than in any week so far. For the year, 83.2 percent of kickoffs reached the end zone and 48.3 percent went for touchbacks.

"One thing about special teams coaches," one NFC special teams coordinator told The Sports Xchange, "is that we tend to be really adaptable. We adjusted when they changed the 'wedge rule' a couple years ago. And we're getting (more accustomed) now to the new kickoff rules, both in returning and covering (kickoffs). Punt coverage units have a ways to go, it seems, but they'll get there."

Rookie reduction: How much did the new collective bargaining agreement, and the rookie wage scale/slotted system, affect draft choice contracts this year? A lot. Like about by 37 percent. According to NFLPA documents, the guaranteed money for first-round choices totaled roughly $331.8 million for 2011, an average of about $10.366 million per player. The average for first-round selections in 2010 was $16.5 million, and was $14.44 million in 2009. The average guarantees for the other rounds of the draft this year: $2.271 million (second round); $648,724 (third); $435,229 (fourth); $186,690 (fifth); $101,761 (sixth); and $51,045 (seventh). The dropoffs are all pretty much in line with the 37 percent reduction in the first round from the '10 totals.

Curry powder: Although there have been reports that a few teams seem interested in acquiring Aaron Curry from Seattle in a trade, it's been tough to identify clubs that are all that hot on the third-year linebacker.

The primary reason cited by general managers and personnel chiefs: Curry, the fourth overall selection in the '09 draft, simply doesn't author many game-altering plays. In 34 regular-season games, Curry has only 5.5 sacks, one interception and four forced fumbles. He's got just eight passes defensed, and while that's more than many linebackers over the past 2 1/4 seasons, it's not a lot for a defender touted as a superior cover guy.

In addition, he has zero fumble recoveries.

Curry adjusted his contract this spring to retain his place on the roster, at least temporarily, but the fact still remains that the Seahawks awarded him a six-year, $60 million deal in 2009. The other, perhaps more troubling part, is that Seattle paid out so much for a guy who wasn't ever a big-play defender in college at Wake Forest.

Curry's game was always steadiness and discipline, being in the right place at the right time, and making the plays he was supposed to make. But the big-money linebackers in the NFL are supposed to be the ones who impact a game. Curry never did and maybe never will.

Sad sacks: Despite a recent column by The Sports Xchange detailing the punishment that quarterbacks have taken to this point in the season - one veteran described the siege as "feeling like a pinata" at times - sacks are not at a record pace. According to the NFL, the single-season record for league-wide sacks is 1,313, set in 1984. At the current pace, there would be 1,164 sacks this season, and there have actually been four years in the past 10 in which the sack total exceeded that number.

Still, the perception that quarterbacks are being hit more - a function, at least in part, of shoddy offensive line play around the NFL, and the fascination on the part of coordinators with throwing the ball so much - isn't entirely off-base.

Just ask guys like Jay Cutler of Chicago, who seems to be forever under duress, or even Atlanta's Matt Ryan, who unofficially has been hit 26 times in four games. There are seven quarterbacks who have been sacked an average of three times per game or more, and six who are on pace to take 50 or more sacks.

That last number is a pretty alarming one. Since sacks became a recognized official statistic in 1982, there have been only five years in which more than two quarterbacks suffered 50 sacks or more. In only 11 of the 29 seasons has there been more than one quarterback with 50 or more sacks.

The record came in 1985, when five passers suffered 50 or more sacks. There are also two defenders, Jason Babin of Philadelphia and Minnesota's Jared Allen, currently on pace to break Michael Strahan's single-season individual sack record.

"It's like open season (on quarterbacks)," said Sam Bradford of St. Louis, who, despite what was supposed to be an improved offense line for the Rams, has been sacked a league-high 18 times in four outings. Bradford was sacked only 34 times as a rookie in 2010.

Campbell staying upright: One quarterback who hasn't yet fallen into the sack trap, somewhat surprisingly to some, is Oakland's Jason Campbell, who has been dumped only two times in four outings. That's tied with Fitzpatrick for the fewest in the league.

In his four previous seasons, Campbell was sacked an average of 33.8 times, and has been criticized (even privately by some opposing defensive coordinators) for lacking awareness and being a statue in the pocket.

But the Raiders have done what few teams in the league have been able to accomplish - run the ball effectively - and the line play has been much better than expected. Darren McFadden leads the NFL in rushing yards for a Raiders attack that also ranks No. 1 in the league in rushing, and Oakland has the NFL's second most attempts.

As a result, Campbell has registered only 121 pass attempts, and just five starters who have played all five games, have fewer.

"When you can run the ball like we have," Campbell told The Sports Xchange, "you don't feel like a sitting duck back there. You're the one who is kind of dictating to the defense, and you can do a lot of things."

There is a tinge of irony, some might suggest, to the Raiders' emergence as a power team. The perception in some quarters of the league was that when Hue Jackson succeeded Tom Cable as head coach, the new guy, whose expertise is as a receivers coach and offensive coordinator, would want to throw the ball all over the field. But Jackson, from Day 1, has talked about implementing a more physical game, and so far, the Raiders have practiced what he's preached.

Nightmare team?: Philadelphia quarterback Michael Vick this week buried all the "Dream Team" rhetoric that surrounded the Eagles, who have been one of the NFL's early disappointments with a 1-3 start. In truth, though, the "Dream Team" moniker was initiated by a guy who hasn't even gotten off the sideline yet, quarterback Vince Young, and who can't get past the untested Mike Kafka for the No. 2 spot on the depth chart.

And, really, as one Philly veteran pointed out, the newcomers to the franchise, whose addition prompted the "Dream Team" label, haven't played all that poorly and haven't been the biggest part of the problem for the underachieving club.

Granted, high-profile cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha hasn't performed yet up to his reputation, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, obtained in the Kevin Kolb trade, has probably been the better corner of the two so far. But no one really doubts that Asomugha won't be dominant once again. Cullen Jenkins and the aforementioned Babin have been more than solid on the defensive line. Evan Mathis (pretty much signed to add depth) and Kyle DeVan have been the starting guards, although the latter will be supplanted this week by rookie first-rounder Danny Watkins.

Ronnie Brown hasn't played well as a backup tailback, and his Wildcat gaffe last week was costly, but he remains a quality back. If anything, it seems, the Eagles have largely been failed more by holdover players.

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