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Haystack of NFL evidence has a few possible bounty needles

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The 50,000 pages in the bounty file became fewer than 200 that were given to the NFLPA on Friday, which via careful, time-consuming, page-by-page scrutiny by yours truly reveal a handful of documents that suggest the existence of a bounty program in New Orleans.

There’s no doubt that the Saints maintained an illegal pay-for-performance program, which rewarded defensive players for good plays and penalized them for mental errors and penalties. For that violation, the coaches and the team should indeed be punished.  As to player discipline, the question is whether and to what extent players offered, paid, or received money for the infliction of injury on opponents.

As Gantt mentioned on Monday afternoon, one document indicates that several persons pledged money to what is described in at least one of the other documents as a “kitty pool” for the 2009 NFC title game against the Vikings, and that several of the contributions were tied to the opposing quarterback, Brett Favre.

The league didn’t produce to the NFLPA a copy of the handwritten notes.  Instead, the league converted the handwritten notes into a typed document, providing the typed document and not the handwritten notes.

For the non-lawyers in the crowd, this is very unusual.  Disputes routinely involve handwritten notes, which may or may not readily be legible.  The standard procedure in such situations is to:  (1) figure out who wrote the notes; and (2) question that person as to what the notes say.  In 18 years of practicing law, I never encountered or heard of a party to any type of litigation converting handwritten notes to typed notes, producing the typed notes, and not producing the handwritten notes for scrutiny and witness questioning.

In this case, at a bare minimum, the NFL should have produced both — especially since the NFLPA will now argue that the typed version does not qualify as an acceptable alternative, and that the typed notes should not be considered because they weren’t produced at least three days before the appeal hearing.

With that caveat, the typed translation of the handwritten notes state “Vilma $10,000 QB,” which the NFL presumably interprets as linebacker Jonathan Vilma pledging $10,000 to anyone who knocked Brett Favre out of the game.  The document similarly indicates that defensive end Charles Grant pledged $10,000 with the “QB” designation, as did non-Saints employee Mike Ornstein.  The notes likewise reflect that assistant head coach/linebackers coach Joe Vitt contributed $5,000 to the “QB out pool,” and that linebacker Scott Fujita and defensive end Will Smith contributed $2,000 and $5,000, respectively, to the “General Pool.”  (Vitt’s lawyer, David Cornwell told PFT on Monday night that Vitt was never accused nor suspected of contributing money to a bounty pool.)  Finally, safety Darren Sharper pledged $5,000 for a “Pick 6” and “QB hits.”

Another document (also a typed version of handwritten notes) lists a variety of names and amounts, with no specific designation as to what the amount reflects.  The presence of Ornstein on the list, along with $5,000, suggests that it’s a list of pledges for an unknown game.  Vilma is down for $2,000, Smith for $1,500, Grant for $1,500, linebacker Scott Shanle for $500, cornerback Leigh Torrence for $500, and “Evans” (presumably linebacker Troy) for $500.  The document in a separate column states “Fujita to DL,” with “$500 Sack” and “$500 FF” below that.

Other documents raise questions, including a 2009 email from Ornstein to Gregg Willliams regarding future contributions from Ornstein, and an October 11, 2009 email from former Saints assistant Mike Cerullo to Williams that says, “Here’s Ornstein’s slide, I also added Jets injury to our Monday slide . . . Here’s what it looks like.”  (The Saints played the Jets on October 4; October 11 was the Sunday of the Saints’ bye week.)

One item lists the “Kill the Head Totals” for 2010, with Vilma leading the way at 62.  It’s unclear what “Kill the Head” means in that context.  Another document shows safety Roman Harper being paid $1,000 for a “cart-off” against the Giants, with no indication as to the subject of the “cart-off” or what specifically happened to him.

Finally, the slide containing the photo of “Dog The Bounty Hunter” looks bad on the surface, but it seems to be an exaggeration, with entries like “Must suspected be delivered dead or alive?”

Though most of the documents produced by the NFL to the NFLPA contain no evidence of a bounty program, a few of the pages keep the bounty case alive.  But it may not be enough to constitute persuasive and adequate evidence that players paid, offered to pay, or received money for inflicting injuries — especially without the handwritten notes and in the absence of testimony from the person(s) who created them.

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Bill O’Brien, Rick Smith say Tom Savage is the starter

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The Texans made a big move up the draft board on Thursday night when they sent their 2018 first-round pick to the Browns for the chance to use the 12th overall pick on quarterback Deshaun Watson.

Houston had already sent their 2018 second-round pick to Cleveland as a way to erase Brock Osweiler from their roster, so one might think that mortgaging the future in that manner would give Watson the inside track on a starting job this year. Both Texans coach Bill O’Brien and General Manager Rick Smith say that isn’t the case.

O’Brien called Savage the starter after the Watson pick was announced and Smith said he was “comfortable” with Savage as the starter, whcih was what he said in his pre-draft press conference as well. Watson didn’t upset the apple cart when discussing his immediate future.

“All I need to do is put my head down, don’t say anything, learn from all the veterans, learn from Tom Savage, learn from Brandon Weeden and just play my role,” Watson said, via the Houston Chronicle. “Whatever my role is help the team win.”

It’s April, which means there’s a lot of time for Watson to learn the offense and make people with the team less comfortable with leaving him on the bench. Until and unless that happens, it will be Savage at the helm in Houston.

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Both Cleveland and Washington deny Kirk Cousins trade talks

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One of the cannonballs into the pool on a busy news night for the NFL was a report from its own network that the Browns were trying to trade for Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins.

By the end of the night, one-sixteenth of the network’s ownership had denied it, with both teams poo-poohing it.

Via Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Browns executive Sashi Brown dismissed it, calling it “bad reporting.”

Meanwhile in Washington, via John Keim of ESPN.com, coach Jay Gruden said they didn’t “receive one call” about Cousins.

The Browns used three picks Thursday night, none on quarterbacks, which means their depth chart still consists of Cody Kessler and Brock Osweiler.

And until Cousins has a long-term deal somewhere, the speculation about him will continue, in Cleveland and elsewhere. But the time being, both teams are shooting this one down.

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Malik McDowell, Dalvin Cook among big names left after first round

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The NFL announced earlier this month that 22 players would be attending this year’s draft in Philadelphia, although that number dropped by one when cornerback Gareon Conley changed his plans this week.

Conley wound up going in the first round despite the sexual assault allegations that led him to pass on the trip, but a few of the other invitees remained on the board through all 32 picks. Michigan State defensive lineman Malik McDowell, Alabama tackle Cam Robinson, Washington cornerback Kevin King and Colorado cornerback Chidobe Awuzie all remain available heading into Round Two on Friday night.

They have company among recognizable names from outside of Philadelphia. Florida State running back Dalvin Cook didn’t join Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey as a first-round pick and joins Tennessee’s Alvin Kamara and Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon at the top of the list of available backs.

Western Kentucky offensive lineman Forrest Lamp, Washington safety Budda Baker and Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham are others that sometimes appeared as first-round picks in mock drafts before going unselected on Thursday. Quarterbacks Davis Webb and DeShone Kizer also figure to be among the names coming off the board when the draft resumes with the Packers on the clock at No. 33.

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49ers end Reuben Foster’s slide

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Reuben Foster’s loss was San Francisco’s gain.

The Alabama linebacker, one of the top talents in the draft, slid after being sent home from the Scouting Combine and, more recently, generating a positive drug test via a dilute sample.

It caused him to plunge, but the 49ers decided to trade up to get him, doing a deal with the Seahawks for the 31st pick in the draft.

The 49ers gave up their second-round pick and a fourth-round pick to make the move up and grab Foster, who possibly would have been nabbed by the Saints.

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Saints close first round by taking Ryan Ramczyk

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The first round of the 2017 NFL Draft is in the books.

The Saints closed out the night’s activities in Philadelphia by taking Wisconsin tackle Ryan Ramczyk with the 32nd overall pick. The pick was one they acquired from the Patriots in the trade that sent wide receiver Brandin Cooks to the Patriots.

Ramczyk is the latest of many strong blockers to come out of Madison in recent years and was widely projected to be a first-round pick this season. He had hip surgery after the end of the Badgers’ season, which may have pushed him down a bit but he ended the night making good on those projections.

They had previously taken cornerback Marshon Lattimore with the 11th pick of the round, so they were able to address both sides of the ball before the night was out.

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Tak McKinley arrives with a flourish, with an “F”

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Pass rusher Takkarist McKinley brings a great story to the NFL. He also brings a colorful vocabulary.

During a live interview with Deion Sanders of NFL Network, McKinley spoke about the influence of his  late grandmother, and the promise he made to her to become a Division I athlete.

“I completed my promise,” McKinley said. “It means every f–king thing to me. Excuse my language. Man, fine me later. Fine me later, man.”

It will be interesting to see whether the NFL does, given that he made the statement during a broadcast on the league-owned network.

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Steelers grab T.J. Watt with 30th overall pick

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The Pittsburgh Steelers selected Wisconsin outside linebacker T.J. Watt with the 30th overall pick in the draft.

The brother of Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, T.J. made a name for himself at Wisconsin last season.

He started just one season for the Badgers after converting to the defensive side of the ball. Watt posted a team-best 15.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks to earn First Team All-Big Ten and multiple All-American honors for Wisconsin last season.

Outside linebacker was a big need for the Steelers as James Harrison isn’t getting any younger.

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Browns move up to No. 29, take David Njoku

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The Browns are the busiest team in the NFL tonight.

With the 29th overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft, the Cleveland Browns selected David Njoku, the athletic tight end from the University of Miami.

The Browns moved up to No. 29 in a trade with the Packers, packaging the 33rd and 108th overall picks to get the 29th pick.

Thanks to their many trades, the Browns had three first-round picks: They took Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett first overall, took Michigan safety Jabrill Peppers 25th overall and then took Njoku. That’s two talented players on defense and a talented player on offense.

No team in the NFL added the kind of talent the Browns added tonight. Cleveland still hasn’t identified its franchise quarterback, but the Browns are starting to put a team in place that looks like it can compete, something that hasn’t been the case recently in Cleveland.

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Cowboys scarf down Taco Charlton with the 28th pick

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With a run of pass-rushers late in the first round, the Cowboys got their Taco to go.

With the 28th pick, Dallas added Michigan defensive end Taco Charlton.

He had 9.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss last year for the Wolverines, and has the kind of size and speed which make him a good option for the Cowboys.

While it’s hard to find the kind of “war daddy” pass-rusher Jerry Jones was hoping for at the end of the first round, Charlton’s a good option for a team which needs all the help they can find opposite Demarcus Lawrence.

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Bills take Tre’Davious White after trading down to No. 27

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The Bills were originally scheduled to pick much earlier on Thursday night, but the Chiefs’ desire to get quarterback Patrick Mahomes helped change that.

The Chiefs sent the Bills their first-round pick next year, a third-round pick this year and the No. 27 pick in exchange for the 10th pick and that haul was too much for Buffalo to pass up. They used that No. 27 pick to add LSU cornerback Tre’Davious White to their roster.

White started for most of his time in Baton Rouge and gives new Bills coach Sean McDermott an option to help build a cornerback corps that’s said goodbye to Stephon Gilmore and Nickell Robey-Coleman since the end of last season. Their departures should help White’s bid to play early for the Bills.

White is the third LSU player and fifth cornerback to come off the board on Thursday night. He’s also a punt returner, so his contributions to the Bills may go beyond defense.

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Falcons trade up for Tak McKinley

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The Seahawks held the 26th pick in the draft. Until the Falcons acquired it from them.

Atlanta moved up from No. 31 to select pass rusher Takkarist McKinley from UCLA.

He gives the Falcons a bookend to Vic Beasley, on a defense that quickly has become one of the best in the NFL under Dan Quinn.

The Seaahwks will now slide into the No. 31 spot, and possibly could slide down even farther.

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Browns select Michigan safety Jabrill Peppers

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The Cleveland Browns could have had Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson with the 12th overall pick if they wanted him to fill a pressing need at the quarterback position.

Instead, the Browns traded back and ended up with Michigan safety Jabrill Peppers.

Peppers could play several different positions in the NFL, but was primarily a linebacker/safety at Michigan.

Peppers finished third in both tackles (72) and all-purpose yardage (an average of 62.6 yards per game) for the Wolverines in 2016, while leading the team with 16 tackles for loss and four sacks.

He’s also a capable special teams performer as well.

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At 24, Raiders take a chance on Gareon Conley

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In perhaps the biggest surprise of the first round of the NFL draft, the Raiders have selected Gareon Conley, the Ohio State cornerback who came under intense scrutiny this week when he was named as a suspect in a sexual assault investigation.

Until his name surfaced in the police investigation, Conley was expected to be a high first-round pick. As it turned out, Conley wasn’t a high first-round pick, but he was a first-round pick, with the Raiders taking him at No. 24.

Obviously, the Raiders have to be confident that Conley will be cleared. Conley has professed his innocence and insisted that he has multiple witnesses who can testify that he was never alone with his accuser on the night in question.

Conley is an undeniably talented football player. The Raiders also believe they can trust him to be clean off the field.

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Giants take Evan Engram with the 23rd pick

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The Giants found the tight end they needed, adding a pass-catching threat.

With the 23rd pick, they took Ole Miss tight end Evan Engram.

Engram had 65 catches for 926 yards and eight touchdowns last year, and is practically a slot receiver.

His 4.42-second 40-yard dash at the combine was the fastest at his position, and he gives fellow Ole Miss man Eli Manning another attractive option downfield.

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Lions take Jarrad Davis at No. 21

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The Lions needed a linebacker. They got on in Jarrad Davis.

The former Florida defender became the 21st pick in the first round of the draft on Thursday night. Davis likely fills the void created by the departure of DeAndre Levy.

Davis exits the board while Reuben Foster’s free-fall continues. He’s regarded as the best linebacker left on the board.

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