Life-threatening accident detoured Weathersby's career
Life-threatening accident detoured Weathersby's careerBy Len Pasquarelli
Certainly, the most scrutinized comeback for Cincinnati Bengals fans right now is the rehabilitation of star quarterback Carson Palmer, who underwent January surgery to repair two torn ligaments in his left knee and who is said to be on schedule to be able to start the 2006 regular-season opener.
But there's an even more remarkable rehabilitation under way -- the pending comeback of onetime Bengals cornerback Dennis Weathersby, a fourth-round choice in the 2003 draft. The promising defender appeared in just four games in his career before his release last spring.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Dennis Weathersby played in only four games in his NFL career.Weathersby was cleared Wednesday by a team of medical experts to resume contact work, several league sources and sources close to the star-crossed player confirmed to ESPN.com. The medical green light to pick up his once-bright football career comes nearly two full years after Weathersby, who will turn 26 next month, emerged from a coma after suffering severe head injuries in a one-car accident.
The former Oregon State standout, blessed with prototype cornerback size (6-foot-1, 200 pounds) and good speed, was regarded as a first- or second-round prospect in the weeks before the 2003 draft. He had been a starter in 45 games in college and established a school record with 57 passes defensed in his career. But on April 20, 2003, only three days before the draft, Weathersby was gunned down in a drive-by shooting near his home in Duarte, Calif. He and a friend, who was also shot, were apparently mistaken for being rival gang members by a gang chieftain. Weathersby lost nearly half his blood volume.
Despite his serious injuries, the Bengals gambled on Weathersby, halting a more precipitous plummet in the draft by choosing him at the top of the fourth round. The team's rationale -- that it was getting a good prospect at a premium position and at a bargain price, assuming Weathersby recovered -- was justifiable. Cincinnati signed Weathersby to a three-year, $1.246 million contract that included a $336,500 signing bonus.
But it took Weathersby longer than anticipated to rehabilitate from his injuries, and he played only four games in his rookie season.
Then, on April 12, 2004, as he was headed to the airport to pick up a teammate, Weathersby's car skidded on a rain-slicked patch of highway near Springdale, Ohio, and he suffered massive head injuries when the Impala SS struck a utility pole. While team officials never acknowledged it, Weathersby's injuries, sources have subsequently confirmed, were life-threatening.
Convinced he would never play again, the Bengals waived Weathersby last spring.
A long rehabilitation, which included surgery to repair shoulder damage suffered in the car accident, got Weathersby back on track physically and emotionally. He has been working out in Los Angeles for the past several months with trainer Marv Marinovich, the father of former Oakland quarterback Todd Marinovich. And there is guarded optimism -- make that very guarded -- that Weathersby might yet be capable of reclaiming the career seemingly taken from him in the two off-field incidents.
A few teams, notably the Atlanta Falcons, made inquiries about Weathersby last season. It will take a team with a lot of guts to gamble on him now, given his medical background, but word is that Weathersby is running well and is in excellent condition. The search for cornerbacks in the NFL, especially cover guys with size, is a never-ending one. Maybe it will lead some team to Weathersby, who is all but ready to work out and eager to try to restart his career.
Around the league
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã‚Â¢ The three high-profile left offensive tackles who will be eligible for unrestricted free agency next spring -- Detroit's Jeff Backus, Cincinnati's Levi Jones and Minnesota's Bryant McKinnie -- are going to get rich really soon. Very rich. Heck, even a fourth left tackle who is a pending free agent, Buffalo's Mike Gandy, might command a pretty decent offer in the free-agent market.
Why? Because the left tackle position has become a big-money spot on virtually every roster. And because the supply of good players at the key position, at least those who will be available after this year, pales in comparison to the demand. Teams are smart now in locking up their prized left tackles long before their contracts expire. And if they don't get them signed to long-term deals, well, they slap the franchise designation on them.
That's what the Lions did this year to Backus, a virtual unknown outside of Detroit but a solid pass protector who will generate plenty of suitors if he goes on the free-agent market. This week, the Lions got Backus to sign the one-year qualifying offer for a franchise tackle by stipulating they won't use the tag on him again next spring, so it sure looks like the five-year veteran will hit the market in 2007. For guaranteeing he'll be a free agent as an enticing carrot to get Backus into first-year coach Rod Marinelli's offseason program, the Lions have been roundly criticized in many quarters, and with some justification. But with the franchise marker for an offensive lineman likely headed beyond $8 million for next spring, the Lions probably wouldn't have used it on Backus again anyway, especially since the Detroit brass really doesn't view its 2001 first-rounder as an elite left tackle. The Lions will continue negotiations with agent Pat Dye Jr. on a long-term deal, but every day that goes by without an agreement brings Backus a day closer to freedom -- and to an eight-figure signing bonus.
Here's an interesting statistic to demonstrate why quality tackles in free agency always will command huge contracts: Of the 31 left tackles who project as starters for 2006 -- excluding the Texans, who are dramatically reshaping their line -- the average time remaining on their current contracts is 3.7 seasons. That includes a projection that D'Brickashaw Ferguson, the fourth choice overall in this year's draft by the New York Jets, signs the maximum deal permissible by the collective bargaining extension. Of those 31 left tackles, only seven have contracts with less than three seasons still remaining on them. And nine have contracts with five or more seasons remaining. So top-shelf left tackles just aren't available very often. And when they are, the ante is raised, because they typically have several teams interested.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã‚Â¢ The cost for the Denver Broncos to acquire disgruntled wide receiver Javon Walker from Green Bay on draft day: Well, for now, just a second-round choice and $1 million. What about that $40 million contract extension, you say? Well, that depends on how well Walker, who is coming off anterior cruciate ligament surgery that limited him to one game in 2005, performs this season. None of the nearly $40 million that Walker is to receive in his five-year contract extension is guaranteed. So, technically, the Broncos could release Walker after this season, although they aren't likely to do so, and have no financial exposure in the future.
Then again, if Walker does play well and approximates the numbers he posted in 2004 (89 receptions, 1,382 yards, 12 touchdowns), he can make a mind-boggling $24 million in the first three seasons of the extension. There are two options in the extension, one for $6 million due next spring, then a second for $3.4 million due in 2008. For 2007, Walker is due a $4 million roster bonus, a base salary of $600,000 and a $100,000 workout bonus. In 2008, there's another roster bonus of $2 million, a salary of $2.1 million and a $100,000 workout bonus. In 2009, his base salary jumps to $5.6 million, again with a workout bonus of $100,000. For 2010, there is a base salary of $5.85 million, a $1 million roster bonus and the $100,000 workout bonus. And in 2011, the base salary is $6.7 million, with a $1 million roster bonus and $100,000 workout bonus.
Walker's salary-cap charge for 2006 is $3.35 million, but it skyrockets to $5.9 million for 2007. As for the wide receiver likely bumped from the starting lineup by Walker's arrival, the unhappy Ashley Lelie, the Broncos continue to have no luck locating a trade partner. Lelie has certainly been dangled to a lot of teams -- Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and San Francisco among them -- but none views him as a No. 1 receiver and none wants to meet his contract demands.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã‚Â¢ It was hardly a bidding war, since the offers from both teams were similar, but the New England Patriots did snatch quarterback Doug Flutie from the clutches of the New York Giants last spring. Now it seems the two teams might once again be interested in the same backup quarterback. This time the object of their affection appears to be Jay Fiedler, the 10-year veteran whose 2005 season with the New York Jets was cut short by a shoulder injury and who is continuing to rehabilitate from surgery. Fiedler is expected to be ready to audition for teams in a few more weeks, and it will be surprising if the Giants and Patriots are not among the suitors.
The Giants wouldn't mind adding a veteran presence to a depth chart that includes Tim Hasselbeck, Jared Lorenzen and Josh Harris as the potential backups behind starter Eli Manning. And as much as the Patriots seem to like the potential of second-year veteran Matt Cassel, the 2005 seventh-round pick who was the backup to Heisman Trophy winners Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart at USC, coach Bill Belichick always likes having a veteran around.
In his New England tenure, Belichick has employed journeymen such as John Friesz (2000), Damon Huard (2001-03), Jim Miller (2004) and then Flutie (2005). Cassel threw only 24 passes as a rookie -- actually, only nine fewer than he attempted during his entire career at Southern California -- and that hardly makes him a lock for the No. 2 spot behind iron man Tom Brady, who has started 89 straight games, counting playoff appearances.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã‚Â¢ Beyond the risk that Marcus Vick might suffer some sort of off-field indiscretion, the Miami Dolphins took on zero exposure in signing the former Virginia Tech quarterback to a free-agent contract early this week. ESPN.com has confirmed that Vick's deal with the Dolphins is for two years at the league minimum base salaries, $275,000 for 2006 and $310,000 for 2007, and includes no signing bonus. There are a few modest incentives built into the deal. Vick turned down an offer from the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL which would have allowed him to play quarterback, hone his skills at the position, and perhaps return to the NFL in a year or two. In Miami, he is likely to be a utility-type player who will have to earn a spot on special teams and maybe as a No. 5 receiver. Just for the record, Vick never returned a kickoff or a punt during his college career. He did play wide receiver in the Insight Bowl following the 2003 season and had four catches for 82 yards, including a 36-yard touchdown grab.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã‚Â¢ Linebacker David Pollack, the Cincinnati Bengals' first-round choice in 2005, probably cost himself a starting job last season when he held out for the first week of training camp in a contract dispute. This spring, Pollack has suffered another setback, one that could affect coordinator Chuck Bresnahan's plans to install some 3-4 defensive fronts in which Pollack's hybrid skills would be a key factor. The former Georgia standout suffered a left-foot injury, reportedly while playing basketball. The injury isn't nearly as severe as some have suggested, but Pollack is in a soft walking cast and probably will miss much of the team's organized training activities over the next few weeks. Sources say that Pollack likely suffered some minor cartilage damage in his ankle but that he should be fully rehabilitated well in advance of the start of training camp.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã‚Â¢ Pro Bowl cornerback Ty Law, regarded as the top free agent still available, hasn't yet visited with Kansas City officials. But the Chiefs remain the odds-on favorite to eventually sign him and pair him with Patrick Surtain in the secondary. Don't expect, though, the Chiefs to ante up the $10 million signing bonus Law is said to be seeking.
Chiefs coach Herm Edwards, who enjoys a strong relationship with Law and speaks to him frequently, attempted last week to quell the talk that Law will be in a Chiefs uniform this season. Said Edwards: "That's the fish story. It was a guppy in Boston and now it's the white whale in Kansas City. By the time it gets to California, it will be Jaws. He's not even scheduled to come here [for a visit], based on what I know."
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã‚Â¢ Add the Chiefs to the teams discussing a possible trade for New Orleans reserve tailback Michael Bennett, who was signed as an unrestricted free agent in mid-March to be the primary backup to Deuce McAllister. But Bennett slid to No. 3 on the depth chart when Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush fell into the Saints' laps in the draft.
Chiefs officials remain uncertain about the return of Priest Holmes from head and neck injuries that limited him to seven games in 2005 -- most observers feel it's no better than 50-50 that he'll be back for a 10th season in the league -- and Kansas City wouldn't have much experience behind Larry Johnson if he opts to retire. The five other tailbacks on the roster -- former Denver backup Quentin Griffin, journeyman Dee Brown and rookies McKenzi Smith, Derrick Ross and De'Arrius Howard -- have a total of 286 carries, 1,037 yards and six touchdowns. By Holmes' past standards, that would be a modest season.
Houston general manager Charley Casserly seems intent on acquiring Bennett, perhaps as his last personnel move before he officially exits on June 1. The Miami Dolphins, who don't want to surrender a draft choice for Bennett and don't have any veteran players in whom New Orleans is interested, remain on the fringes. If he can stay healthy, Bennett could still be a terrific change-of-pace back for someone; he still has plenty of long speed and is capable of the big play. And for any team that acquires him, he won't be too expensive. The two-year deal he signed with New Orleans included a $1 million signing bonus, but the Saints are on the hook for that. His base salaries are $700,000 for this season and $1.2 million for 2007.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã‚Â¢ There's an interesting bit of byplay taking place in New Orleans, where neophyte politician Arnold Fielkow is running for the position of councilman-at-large, a key spot in city government there, and is expected to win. For those who aren't familiar with Fielkow, he was the longtime Saints' executive vice president and essentially the architect of the sweetheart 10-year deal with the state of Louisiana that guarantees the franchise more than $180 million over the course of the accord. But when Fielkow opposed Saints owner Tom Benson last summer, when Benson suggested the team might never move back to hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, he was fired. Word is that the Saints strongly suggested to their current players, a few of whom were approached by Fielkow, that they not take part in any radio advertisements endorsing the candidate. And so Fielkow recruited a couple former Saints heroes -- offensive tackle Willie Roaf and kicker Tom Dempsey, who owns a share of the NFL record for the longest field goal in history -- to tape the commercials for him instead.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã‚Â¢ Derek Ross, a talented but troubled cornerback who played three seasons in the NFL, has all but officially squandered away his promising career. A third-round choice of the Dallas Cowboys in the 2002 draft, the former Ohio State standout was sentenced this week to four years in a Texas prison after pleading guilty to jumping bail after a drug arrest last year. In addition, he faces more drug-related charges in South Carolina and, if found guilty of those, could be sentenced to as much as 30 years in prison. Ross, 26, was a physical cornerback who lacked speed but who played the ball well; he could have had a solid career in the league. His draft stock dropped markedly in 2002 because of myriad off-field indiscretions, and apparently he continued to be a magnet for trouble.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã‚Â¢ League teams allocate so many youngsters to NFL Europe, in part to gain the training-camp roster exemptions that come with them, that there are very few free agents available who are playing overseas. But one free agent worth a look, for a club in need of a deep snapper, is Jordan Hicks of the Hamburg Sea Devils. Hicks was in camp with the Oakland Raiders last summer but did not make the final roster. The former Georgetown (Ken.) University standout can play a little defensive end, but his primary value is as a snapper. In more than 45 snaps this spring, he has just one slightly errant effort, and that did not result in a catastrophe. Hicks also has four special-teams tackles, an impressive figure for a deep snapper, entering this weekend.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã‚Â¢ Stat of the week: The New Orleans Saints are close to an agreement that will move this year's training camp to Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss. It would mark the 10th different summer training camp site in 40 seasons for the Saints, who have posted just nine winning records in 39 years. Four of the past camp sites -- Metairie (at the team's permanent facility), Thibodaux, Ruston and Hammond -- were in Louisiana. The other sites have included: Hattiesburg, Miss.; San Diego; Bowling Green, Ohio; Vero Beach, Fla.; and LaCrosse, Wis.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã‚Â¢ Punts: Although he is considering retirement, quarterback Vinny Testaverde might consider playing another season if Cleveland coach Romeo Crennel sent out an SOS for a veteran backup. As noted in this space last week, the Browns are going to give recently acquired Ken Dorsey about six weeks to assimilate the offense before determining whether they need a more proven No. 2 guy behind starter Charlie Frye. ... The Miami Dolphins made a nice pickup this week, claiming former Philadelphia Eagles center Dominic Furio on waivers. A seventh-round choice in the 2004 draft, Furio's career progress has been slowed by injuries. But the former Nevada-Las Vegas standout, who got buried this spring by the sudden depth the Eagles have accumulated at the position, definitely has NFL-caliber talent. ... San Diego worked mighty mite tailback Darren Sproles at wide receiver earlier this week. Although his 5-foot-6 frame makes him a tough target, the Chargers staff wants to find a way to get the elusive Sproles on the field more in 2006. ... Looking for a sleeper on the New Orleans roster? Try cornerback Grant Mason of Michigan, an undrafted free agent who had some impressive moments at the rookie minicamp last weekend. ... The Washington Redskins plan to use third-year veteran Chris Cooley, a standout at H-back in his first two seasons with the Redskins, more as a traditional tight end in coordinator Al Saunders' offense this year. ... Rich Gannon was in Tampa Bay this week, helping old friend Jon Gruden with the Bucs' quarterbacks during passing camp. Gannon has no designs, however, on returning to the field. ... The new four-year contract that Green Bay wide receiver Donald Driver signed two weeks ago includes a $2 million initial signing bonus, a roster bonus of $2 million, a second roster bonus of $250,000, a workout bonus of $55,720 and a base salary of $950,000 for 2006. There are subsequent roster bonuses of $1 million each in 2008 and 2009 and workout bonuses of $56,720 for 2007 and of $106,720 apiece for 2008-09. The rest of the base salaries in the deal are $2.7 million (2007), $2.8 million (2008) and $3.9 million (2009). The salary-cap charge for this season is a livable $4.62 million and actually decreases to $4.12 million for 2007. ... Scrambling to add a veteran wide receiver in the wake of Jimmy Smith's retirement last week, the Jacksonville Jaguars this week auditioned free agents Dez White, Randy Hymes and Troy Edwards. ... Giants coaches are excited by what they have seen so far from second-round wide receiver Sinorice Moss and consider him a steal based on where they landed him. Moss was one of five players general manager Ernie Accorsi had targeted for the team with the final pick in the first round, after trading back with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Giants got the player they had rated highest on their board at the time, Boston College standout defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka, and then made a deal in the second round to move up to snatch Moss. ... The market for New Orleans safety Dwight Smith is quiet for now, but there seems little doubt the Saints will deal the versatile veteran defensive back before camp begins.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã‚Â¢ The last word: "I won 37 of 39 college games, and suddenly I'm 'too Hollywood'? My arm strength is a negative? I mean, what's the deal? What happened here? I'm so tired of the drama. The whole thing has just brought me down." -- Arizona Cardinals first-round quarterback and former Southern California star Matt Leinart on perceptions he isn't serious enough about football
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here .
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