By Tony Grossi
Extra Points …
The door is open: The three-game suspension slapped on Scott Fujita in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal opens the door for rookie draft picks James-Michael Johnson and Emmanuel Acho to make a contribution sooner than anticipated.
Fujita, 33, was going to be replaced sooner than later, but I doubt the plans were to replace him immediately. The suspension, pending appeal, possibly could result in Fujita losing his job permanently. This was the last season left on the three-year contract he signed as a free agent in 2010 – after the Saints won the Super Bowl.
Browns coach Pat Shurmur certainly indicated Fujita remains in the team's plans for 2012. In a statement issued by the club, Shurmur called Fujita "a valued member" of the Browns and said the team looked forward "to his participation in our offseason program and training camp."
When Fujita missed the last six games last season with a broken hand, they moved Chris Gocong to Fujita’s strongside spot and promoted Kaluka Maiava to the weakside spot. Gocong responded with some of his better games after the switch, including banner days in successive games at Pittsburgh and Arizona.
So they might keep him at strong side and open the weak side to competition. Maiava might have the early track, but I’m told that Johnson is considered very highly in the Browns’ scouting department.
The fourth-round pick from Nevada has more speed than Acho, but he is not that experienced in covering tight ends or backs. That is a huge assignment in the NFL for the position. Johnson was a four-year starter and two-year captain. He started his first two seasons at strong side linebacker and the last two at middle linebacker.
Acho, who was a sixth-round pick, started mostly his last two years at Texas, and actually saw time at each linebacker position.
Fujita keeping mum: Fujita has declined interview requests during the NFL investigation of the Saints’ bounty scandal, and reportedly is meeting with NFL Players Association officers and lawyers to decide his next course of action.
National reports predict a messy, protracted legal battle between the NFL and the suspended players, which include Jonathan Vilma, Anthony Hargrave and Will Smith.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell evidently didn’t buy Fujita’s contention to SI.com’s Peter King that he never paid for players to be injured.
Goodell said in the official NFL statement of the discipline, “In assessing player discipline, I focused on players who were in leadership positions at the Saints; contributed a particularly large sum of money toward the program; specifically contributed to a bounty on an opposing player; demonstrated a clear intent to participate in a program that potentially injured opposing players; sought rewards for doing so; and/or obstructed the 2010 investigation.”
Goodell concluded: “No bounty program can exist without active player participation. The evidence clearly showed that the players being held accountable today willingly and enthusiastically embraced the bounty program. Players put the vast majority of the money into this program and they share responsibility for playing by the rules and protecting each other within those rules.”
A league source told me that there are two sides to this story and public opinion should be reserved until Fujita's side is told. That will happen at the appropriate time, the source said.
Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 44 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
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