NFL Cougars in the headlines

ONE-TIME COUGAR All-American and Outland Trophy winner Rien Long left college a year early, but his math skills don't appear to have suffered. Entering the fourth and final year of his contract with the Tennessee Titans, he knows that 2006 will be pivotal to his chances of staying with the Titans -- but perhaps more crucial to getting his salary closer to seven figures.

"It's time to take it to the next level," Rien Long recently told the Nashville City Paper. "This is where you find out what you're worth. So there is a sense of urgency."

Long, a fourth-round pick in 2003, is a second-team performer for the Titans but has seen considerable action and improved steadily over the last three seasons -- to the point he is now considered a run-stopper as well as a pass rusher. As for the upcoming season, he says, "I know it's the time that they'll either show me the doorway or welcome me back to stay with the club." He made $460,000 last year and will climb to $712,000 this season via an escalator clause in his contract. The average NFL salary is $1.25 million per year.

While on the topic of the Titans and one-time Cougar All-Americans, defensive back Lamont Thompson -- who was no stranger to playing a variety of roles in the secondary in his four seasons as a Cougar starter -- is reportedly moving from free safety to strong safety this season to make room for Titans newcomer Chris Hope. At WSU, where he shattered the school's career record for interceptions, he went from safety to cornerback and then back to safety.

Another Cougar who makes a living as an NFL safety, Steve Gleason of the Saints, is finding out first-hand why The Advocate of Baton Rouge calls New Orleans' new approach to personnel "a game of 52 pickup." Across the depth chart, the Saints' new coaching staff is tossing in new bodies, seemingly regardless of need. Take safety, for instance. In addition to Gleason -- widely rated one of pro ball's most spectacular special teams performers -- the club returns two veteran safeties, Dwight Smith and Jay Bellamy, and 2005 second-round draft choice Josh Bullocks. And yet this off-season the staff signed veteran free agent Omar Stoutmire and traded for another in Bryan Scott. To top it off, they drafted Alabama's Roman Harper in the second round. Go figure.

The Sportings News is out this week with its annual "good guys in sports" issue and focuses on the things that various Saints and other pro athletes have done to alleviate the post-Katrina suffering in New Orleans. Among the good-hearted deeds TSN mentions is Gleason's work spearheading the collection of more than 8,000 backpacks, filled with school supplies, for children displaced by Katrina.

MOVING ON TO YET MORE news of Cougars playing defensive back in the NFL, word out of Indianapolis is that cornerback Jason David is recovering nicely from a sports hernia -- a weakening of the abdominal muscles caused by repetitive twisting and turning at high speed. It's fairly common in hockey, soccer and tennis, but playing cornerback in the NFL would seem a natural for the malady.

Meanwhile, New York Jets safety Erik Coleman, one of the great defensive playmakers in Cougar history, is hitting the books this offseason. But unlike last year, when he returned to Pullman to wrap up his degree, this time around he's matriculating at the Eric Mangini Institute. Borrowing a page from the Patriots, Mangini, the Jets' new head coach, has his players taking written quizzes about their on-field responsibilities.

Coleman told NFL.com the quizzes have given him new insights into what his secondary mates playing over on the corners are trying to accomplish. Under Mangini, that knowledge is critical because his defensive approach is heavy on different coverages and mutiple roles for players. Coleman sounds right at home with the new staff. "We're mixing stuff up. We show a bunch of different looks. It's fun to be a part of it," he recently told the Newark Star-Ledger.

Over in the Rocky Mountains, DenverBroncos.com last month published a nice article on the maturation of old Cougar cornerback Karl Paymah. "Like countless scores of rookies before him, Karl Paymah's NFL indoctrination was occasionally frustrating, often humbling," the site wrote. Paymah said 2005 was overwhelming. But now, he adds, the game is fun again because he knows what he's doing -- both on and off the field.

"I'm spending time on being more of a pro as far as watching film and taking care of my body," Paymah said. "I learned that the hard way. You've got to take care of your body. I go home every night, and I stretch before I go to bed."

The effort appears to be paying off. During the team's spring mini camps he was working with the two deeps and is considered the leading candiate to be the Broncos' fifth DB in nickel packages.

TWO QUESTIONS CAME TO mind with the news that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger wasn't wearing a helmet in his much-talked-about motorcycle accident. Thought No. 1: Is he out of his mind?! Thought No. 2: Is Drew Bledsoe still riding his bike? The answer to the first question is, undeniably, YES.

The answer to the second -- no -- comes from Andy Targovnick at RealFootball365.com. He writes, "Although Bledsoe maintains that he doesn't ride anymore, he was seen riding as recently as 2003 without a helmet ... After seeing the mangled heap of metal that used to be Ben Roethlisberger's motorcycle, one would figure that a wake up call from (Cowboys coach Bill) Parcells or (owner Jerry) Jones wouldn't be necessary."

By the way, Bledsoe, whose 1992 Apple Cup exploits still bring a smile to the face of every true Cougar, deserves a hearty congratulations. He and fellow Washington native Megan Quann, the Olympic champion swimmer from Puyallup, last month received the Henry Iba Citizen Athlete Award from the Rotary Club for exceptional performance on the field and in service to the community. Iba was a legendary Oklahoma State and U.S. Olympic team basketball coach. At the award banquet in Tulsa, Bledose said, "If you can make a difference outside of entertaining people on Sunday (that) is far more important."

In other news on the quarterback front, Jason Gesser -- the winningest signal caller in WSU history -- recently re-signed for a second season with the Utah Blaze of the Arena Football League. Last season Gesser completed 89 of 145 attempts for 1,092 yards and 23 TDs while filling in for injured started Joe Germaine. CF.C caught up with Jason for a wide-ranging interview a few weeks back. Here's the link to that story: Gesser hopes pro odyessy ends in AFL

OVER IN BALTIMORE, THE tide looks like it finally may be moving in favor of receiver Devard Darling. Since leaving WSU after his junior year in 2003, it's been one injury after another. A third-round draft pick by the Ravens in 2004, he has just two catches in his pro career and was nearly cut a year ago. Fully healthy, he now finds himself in an unfamiliar role -- starter.

Injuries to Mark Clayton and Clarence Moore have cleared the way, but Darling's recent mini-camp work was solid. "This is the year he's got to show it," Ravens OC Jim Fassel told the Baltimore Sun. "He's had some learning curve. It's been long enough now. He's got to show the progress this year. He's got to show that he's more than potential and that he can perform. He has the tools, and I like his attitude."

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