1. A star of screens both big and small
One day, not so long ago, Arian Foster was running hills. His phone rang. On the line was director Ivan Reitman. Yes, that Reitman, the one who has directed over two dozen movies, including Ghostbusters and Stripes, and produced Academy Award Best Picture nominee Up in the Air.
"I was surprised," Foster, the runner for Houston, said in an interview with Bleacher Report. "I mean, I was shocked. I was on the phone with this Hollywood legend."
Foster had actually sent in an audition tape for the movie Draft Day. How did he prepare to make the tape? He did what Arian Foster always does—he prepared relentlessly. He went to YouTube and saw how they were done. One tape in particular, from Reese Witherspoon, caught his attention. He modeled his tape after that.
When he auditioned for the part, Foster beat out real, trained actors. He got it. That led to the call from Reitman and his role in Draft Day. Soon after, he was shooting scenes with Kevin Costner and Terry Crews.
Foster is actually, well, fantastic in the movie. He has about four total minutes on film and plays a running back from Florida State with some character issues (that's realistic at least). He looks like a real damn actor. It was fascinating to watch.
He's become part of a long line of footballers turned thespians. Jim Brown became an action star in the 1960s and beyond. There was Fred Dryer, Bubba Smith, Brian Bosworth, Lawrence Taylor, Michael Strahan, O.J. Simpson, The Rock and others. Brown was the best, by far. Not even close. Now there's Foster.
"I approached it the way I approached football," Foster said. "You don't want to miss assignments and I didn't want to mess up lines."
The movie, in many ways, represents a rebirth for man who was considered one of the premier talents—and good dudes—in the NFL. Foster's image and play have both taken a beating.
Yet I think this season could be Foster's best yet. In speaking with him, he sounded grounded and recharged. I wouldn't be stunned if Foster were the most productive back in football this coming season.
Foster is coming off surgery for a herniated disc. "I can tell you the surgery wasn't as major as it sounded," said Foster. "That's why I rebounded so quickly. I also worked my ass off. I'm expecting to do bigger things and bounce back."
Foster also went through an embarrassing situation that we don't need to get totally into, but he seems to have rebounded from that as well.
What we have left is a Foster on a mission, the only big-time back left in the AFC South after the departure of big names like Maurice Jones-Drew and Chris Johnson.
What can fans expect from Foster? "They can expect whatever they want," Foster explained. "You can't work through others' expectations. We expect to win. That's what we work for."
2. The NFLPA, Josh Freeman and DeSean Jackson
When I tweeted the fact that the union was going to investigate potential leaks about DeSean Jackson's possible ties to gangs, I was inundated with sarcastic tweets about the union. Now, I love sarcasm. I live sarcasm. But let me tell you why what the union is doing is a good thing.
The answer actually begins with Josh Freeman. When Freeman was in Tampa, then-coach Greg Schiano, by almost all accounts, treated him horribly. Freeman had his faults (all Freemans do), but he was, and is, also an honorable man (most Freemans are). Schiano wrecked his confidence, and what's worse, Schiano may have leaked confidential information about Freeman and his status in the drug program.
That's a no-no. That's a huge no-no. That should be actionable. If true, Freeman should be able to sue the organization. But he cannot for practical purposes. I'm not even sure the collective bargaining agreement would allow it, but even if it did, imagine Freeman's future if he sued. No team would want him. He'd end his future in football.
That's where the NFLPA comes in. Finding out what happened, and releasing that information publicly, is really the only way Freeman can get justice. I find this pursuit by the union to be an honorable one. Laugh all you want, but it's the only way players trashed anonymously, and in an actionable way, can get justice. From everything I hear, the union will wrap up its investigation into what happened with Freeman soon. I have a feeling there will be some meat to those results.
A union official told me they will conduct a similar conversation into Jackson and if the Eagles leaked damaging information to the media. This will be a tougher haul for the NFLPA. Jackson isn't the class act that Freeman is. Jackson has always been a big, fat jerk. Nothing in this story is shocking.
Nonetheless, there are still some peculiarities about what was said about him post-release. The gang-ties nonsense is where the union may focus.
The union is looking out for its players. Even players who aren't always good guys.
3. Can Ryan Clark save Jackson and Washington?
This is the biggest Jackson question now: Can a young Washington head coach, in his first pro head coaching job, control Jackson the way Andy Reid did?
Many league observers say no. They think Jackson will blow up there the way he did under Chip Kelly. They believe Jackson cannot be coached, especially by a first-year coach. It's who Jackson is. He won't change. He can't change.
There is, however, one person who can save the situation. His name is Ryan Clark.
He's a safety who played in Pittsburgh and is one of the more intelligent and grounded people I've known in the business. He is also immensely respected by almost everyone in football. He will immediately improve the professionalism in that locker room. It is bound to penetrate every corner of that franchise—even Jackson's thick skull.
4. Chris Johnson once compared himself to Michael Jordan
This is how far Chris Johnson has fallen. Johnson once thought he was better than Adrian Peterson. He also thought he would be the face of the league. Johnson also used to compare himself to Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and President Obama.
That was just a short time ago. A handful of years. Now, Johnson is looking for work. It's not a shock Johnson was released. That was expected. It remains a shock how quickly the body of a running back deteriorates. It was clear when watching that Johnson had lost a significant amount of speed and power. He was also showing a fear of getting hit when that wasn't the case a short time ago.
This statistic from ESPN's Trey Wingo says it all:
Is Chris Johnson still a HR hitter? Had 22 carries of 20+ yds in 2009, 13 in 2010, 11 in 2011, 8 in 2012 and just 5 in 2013 #thatsatrend— trey wingo (@wingoz) April 4, 2014
What made Johnson most dangerous was his huge, frightening runs. Without those, Johnson is Toby Gerhart.
I'm hearing the Falcons are extremely interested in Johnson. I'm hoping they're smarter than that. It's clear now that Johnson is done. He's neither Jordan nor Kobe. The only thing he's president of is The Worn Out Running Back Club.
The Johnson situation also reminds me of something I've been thinking lately but have never been able to properly articulate. Jim Brown, the best football player of all time, telling The Plain Dealer:
Who are the running backs who aren’t getting the ball today who should be? Adrian Peterson isn’t running by committee. Nobody is going to tell me Marshawn Lynch can’t run. He’s strong as an ox. I don’t have the answers, but it doesn’t bother me. I don’t measure things by the average, which I know writers would have to look at things the way they have to, but I don’t have to. I’m looking at the exceptions to the rule, not the rule. ... As we sit here, I can’t name seven great runners. Can you?
In other words, what Brown is saying is that the reason running backs are no longer the dominant force in the NFL is not because of a pass-friendly league. It's because there just aren't that many good runners.
“I believe if I were playing the game today," Brown said, "I would still get the ball as much as I did all those years ago."
Because he was great unlike a lot of backs now.
5. Support for potential college union
There are some pretty huge names on this list of former college athletes supporting Ed O'Bannon's suit against the NCAA over the use of athletes' names for commercial purposes. There will be more big names to come. Many more, from what I'm hearing. Don't be stunned if every top NFL player lends their support. Or almost every NFL player, period.
6. The ugly nickname won't go away
This from The New York Times' David Treuer is one of the best things ever written on the Washington football team's disgraceful nickname. Doesn't seem like it will be disappearing anytime soon. Which is sad.
7. Eagles still best in NFC East?
An AFC general manager: "The Eagles are still the best in that division. It doesn't matter if they lost DeSean (Jackson). I think they have the fewest holes. I think they have the second best coach to Tom (Coughlin). That quarterback will be better, and Chip Kelly is a mad scientist. He will be the best coach in that division when Tom retires.
"The other thing is that division is awful, so then you go to the rosters. They still have the best overall roster. I think the deepest. They scare me the most. They're the best of a bad lot in that division."
8. Irsay under scrutiny from NFL
I can tell you that the NFL is paying close attention to the case of Jim Irsay. No, that's not correct. They aren't just paying close attention. They are putting every aspect of Irsay's life under a microscope, particularly after this report emerged.
"All of it is a horrible look," said one league official.
I can also tell you the union is paying close attention. Very close. It's no secret they are interested to see if Roger Goodell potentially holds Irsay to the same standard he would a player.
9. On Manziel: hate, love, hate, love
All this time later, the opinion of Johnny Manziel is still fractured. It's amazing, actually.
NFL scout to me: "He is a cocky guy. I'm not so sure he's coachable. He might be the DeSean (Jackson) of quarterbacks."
NFL personnel executive: "If it were up to me, he'd be first pick in the draft. I'd take him yesterday. He will have an immediate impact."
A different scout: "Too short, too cocky. Third-rounder to me."
Different team executive: "I dream about guys like Manziel. He's going to be terrific. The reason why will surprise some people. He's a much more accurate thrower than people know."
By the way: There's a growing feeling that the Raiders will take Manziel.
10. RIP Chuck Stone
Allow me one moment to acknowledge the life and death of a great man named Chuck Stone. He was a Tuskegee Airman, a genius, a writer, a teacher. My teacher. He will be missed.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.