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NFL morning after: It’s the Texans and everyone else in the AFC

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Is seven weeks into the season too early to declare home-field advantage wrapped up? Probably. But let’s be real about the state of the AFC right now: It’s the Texans and everyone else.

The Texans are so much better than the rest of the AFC that only a string of major injuries to key players (like Houston had last year) can prevent them from clinching home field for the playoffs, probably with a couple games left in the regular season. The road to the Super Bowl goes through Houston.

Entering Sunday, the Texans and Ravens were tied for the best record in the AFC at 5-1, and their meeting at Reliant Stadium looked like a possible AFC Championship preview. But on Sunday the Texans absolutely humiliated the Ravens, jumping out to a 29-3 halftime lead and coasting through the second half to win 43-13. If the Ravens are the second-best team in the AFC, then I don’t know if there’s ever been a bigger gap between the first and second-best teams in either conference in NFL history.

The Texans are such a complete team. They pass the ball well with Matt Schaub throwing to receivers Andre Johnson and Kevin Walter and tight end Owen Daniels. In Arian Foster they have one of the NFL’s best running backs. Defensive lineman J.J. Watt is my choice for Defensive Player of the Year in the NFL right now. Johnathan Joseph has been slowed by a groin injury this season, but when he’s at full speed he’s among the NFL’s best cornerbacks — and he looked like he’s getting closer to full speed when he picked off Joe Flacco and returned the interception 52 yards for a touchdown on Sunday.

All of that is half of the reason the Texans are so far ahead of the pack in the AFC. The other half is that every other team in the AFC is deeply flawed. Only the Texans, Ravens and Patriots have winning records, and it’s looking like a year when 8-8 may be enough to make the playoffs in the AFC. All those AFC teams hovering around .500 may look to some people like just the kind of parity everyone likes about the NFL, but it looks more like mediocrity to me.

The Texans’ loss to the Packers a week ago is a strong demonstration of how much better the NFC is than the AFC this season: If the Texans were in the other conference, they wouldn’t be the favorites to earn home-field advantage. But as the one and only really good team in a mediocre conference, the Texans have the clearest path to the Super Bowl of any team in the NFL.

Here are my other observations from the seventh Sunday of this NFL season:

Chris Johnson may be the most inconsistent player in NFL history. Johnson was absolutely sensational for the Titans in Sunday’s win over the Bills, carrying 18 times for 195 yards and two touchdowns, including one 83-yard run on which he looked like he could give Usain Bolt a competitive race. Johnson’s game-breaking ability is unmatched; previously in his NFL career Johnson has had touchdown runs of 91, 89 and 85 yards, and he’s the only player in NFL history with four career touchdown runs of 80 yards or longer. But for the Titans, it’s maddening that a player with the talent to run like that has so many absolutely terrible games. In the first six weeks of this season, Johnson had four different games in which he failed to gain even 25 yards. In those four games, Johnson’s total stat line is 48 carries for 69 yards and zero touchdowns. How can a player who’s good enough to gain 195 yards on 18 carries in one game be bad enough to total just 69 yards on 48 carries in four other games? It’s inexplicable.

Browns rookie defensive lineman Billy Wynn committed one of the dumbest penalties of the year. On a fourth down from the Colts’ own 22-yard line in the second quarter, the Indianapolis offense stayed on the field. Obviously, all they were going to do is try to draw the Browns’ defense offside: No NFL team ever goes for it on fourth down in that situation. Which obviously means that all the Browns had to do was not jump offside. And yet Wynn jumped offside, giving the Colts a free first down. Penalties don’t get much dumber than that.

Wynn’s penalty wasn’t even the Browns’ dumbest fourth-down decision. Browns coach Pat Shurmur made one of the bonehead calls of the year when he sent out his punter on fourth-and-1 from the Colts’ 41-yard line while trailing 17-13 with 6:38 left in the fourth quarter. That’s a situation where you have to go for it. You simply cannot give the ball away because you don’t trust your offense to gain one yard with the game on the line. The Browns, of course, ended up losing by that same 17-13 score. Shurmur is coaching for his job right now, and these are the decisions that get coaches fired.

We’re running out of superlatives for Robert Griffin III. Even in defeat, Griffin is doing amazing things as the Redskins’ quarterback. After Griffin completed 20 of 28 passes for 258 yards and two touchdowns, plus 89 yards rushing, players on the Giants’ defense declared Griffin the best quarterback they’ve faced this season. Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora described Griffin as “flat-out unbelievable.” It’s amazing how good this guy is, at just 22 years old.

Last year we were running out of superlatives for Cam Newton. If you want to make the case that no one should get too excited about Griffin, all you have to do is point to Newton. Last year Newton was doing many of the same things Griffin was doing, making plays with his arm and his feet in an unbelievable rookie season for the Panthers. But this year Newton just doesn’t appear to be the same player. It’s not that Newton has been terrible, but in games like Sunday’s loss to the Cowboys, he just hasn’t been able to make plays when the Panthers need him. Becoming a great pro quarterback is a lot of work, and while Newton may achieve greatness eventually, he’s not there yet. Maybe a full year of film on Newton has better prepared NFL defenses to stop him, or maybe Newton let all the fame get to his head last year. But he’s not playing as well as he did in 2011.

The Jets aren’t going down without a fight. After they lost their best player, Darrelle Revis, to a season-ending knee injury and then lost their next game 34-0 to the 49ers, I thought the Jets would be one of the worst teams in the league the rest of the season. But I was wrong. The Jets are playing tough, competitive football. On Sunday in New England the Jets were (at least according to the Vegas lines) the biggest underdogs in the NFL. And yet they took the Patriots to overtime. Rex Ryan turns a lot of people off with all his bluster, but the guy is a damn good coach.

Colts coach Chuck Pagano had the biggest win of the day. Not because his team beat the Browns to improve to 3-3 and surpass last year’s win total, but because he was sent home after four weeks in the hospital while undergoing treatment for leukemia. For Pagano, that’s an important step to getting where he wants to be: Back to coaching his team.

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Agent denies report Koa Misi is retiring after being placed on IR

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Miami Dolphins linebacker Koa Misi’s 2017 season came to an end before it could even begin as he was placed on injured reserve on Tuesday.

A lingering neck injury that required surgery and brought his 2016 season after just three games led to Miami ending his 2017 season before players ever took to the practice fields for training camp.

A report by Andy Slater of WINZ  940-AM in Miami indicated that Misi has made the decision to retire from the game following Tuesday’s news. However, Misi’s agent, Kenneth Zuckerman, refutes that notion, saying that Misi isn’t retiring.

Zuckerman told the Miami Herald, and confirmed to PFT, that Misi is not retiring.

We’re all disappointed. It’s unexpected. I feel bad for him and we’ll see what the future entails,” Zuckerman told the Herald.

Slater followed it up with a tweet saying Misi had told family and close friends his intentions to retire Tuesday night.

Dolphins head coach Adam Gase told reporters that he was confident Misi would play again. He will be a free agent after the upcoming season. He is not eligible to return from injured reserve as players need to be on the initial 53-man roster in order to be eligible to return to action.

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Xavier Rhodes mentor Terrell Buckley says likely Rhodes inks extension with Vikings this week

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Xavier Rhodes believes he’s one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. He may be about to sign a deal that pays him like one.

According to Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer-Press, Rhodes’ mentor, former NFL cornerback Terrell Buckley, believes there’s a “high probability” Rhodes signs a contract extension with the Vikings this week.

“He is trying to get a couple of things squared away (with the contract),’’ Buckley said. “He wants to be there. He loves the (Vikings) organization, but obviously it’s a business.

“He’s got to make sure it makes sense to him financially. But he’s excited about it. He loves Minnesota. He loves the head coach (Mike Zimmer). He loves (defensive backs coach Jerry Gray). He’s very adamant and excited that he wants to be a Viking. He wants to play his whole career in Minnesota.’’

Rhodes made the Pro Bowl for the first time last season after recording five interceptions, 11 passes defended, 52 tackles and a forced fumble for the Vikings last year. The former first-round pick is set to enter the final year of his rookie contract with Minnesota, which is set to pay him a touch over $8 million this season.

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Falcons stadium roof will remain closed, indefinitely

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Last month, the roof at the new Falcons stadium successfully closed. Next month, it may stay that way for a while.

Via Tim Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, AMB Group CEO Steve Cannon said Tuesday that the roof will be closed when the stadium opens next month, and that it will remain closed “for an undetermined period of time” thereafter. Cannon blamed the inability to fully mechanize the roof on construction delays.

As a result, Cannon said the roof will be closed both for the preseason home opener on August 26 and the regular-season home opener on September 17.

That conflicts with something Falcons president and CEO Rich McKay said in May on PFT Live. At the time, McKay said the roof will be fully operational from the moment the stadium opens.

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Texans GM Rick Smith: “No contract dispute” with holdout Duane Brown

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Even with left tackle Duane Brown skipping offseason workouts and holding out from the start of training camp in West Virginia, Houston Texans general manager Rick Smith doesn’t feel he has anything to discuss with the former Pro Bowler.

According to John McClain of the Houston Chronicle, Smith’s stance is that Brown is under contract and that’s that.

I have talked to Duane,” Smith said. “There is no contract dispute. Duane is under contract for two more years. That’s our position.

“We’re here to get our team ready for the season. He should be a part of it. Duane and I have a really good relationship. He’s our longest-tenured player. He’s an important member of our team, and he ought to be here. He needs to be here.”

NFL teams can be hesitant to issue contract extensions to players with more than one year remaining on their current contracts. That doesn’t mean they never happen though. The Texans themselves have broken that mold for Andre Johnson and J.J. Watt in the past. However, DeAndre Hopkins was unsuccessful in leveraging a contract with two years left on his deal a season ago.

Brown was placed on the reserve/did not report list by the Texans on Tuesday. Brown already has skipped the full offseason program, including a mandatory mini-camp that exposed him to roughly $80,000 in fines. Because Brown is under contract, each day missed of training camp carries a potential $40,000 fine as well.

He is scheduled to make $9.4 million this season and $9.75 million in 2018.

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Jerry Jones: We make decisions in best interest of the team

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Jerry Jones wouldn’t speak specifically about the team’s decision to release Lucky Whitehead, but the Cowboys owner clearly was bothered by criticism of it.

I’m not going to talk about Lucky,” Jones said Tuesday night, via David Moore of the Dallas Morning News. “I’m going to talk about players.

“I’ve never talked to a player that I didn’t have empathy. If you all [media] have done one thing in my time to criticize me, it is how I will back up a player to a fault. You’ve done it. You’ve done it for years. I will back them up to a fault.”

Jones became emotional as he continued.

“So when we do make a decision around here that’s in the best interest of the team to move on, there’s one thing you can forget about and that is whether you’re being fair or whether you’ve given it consideration of what it means to the individual,” Jones said. “That doesn’t happen around here. Thank you guys.”

Virginia police cleared Whitehead of a bogus shoplifting charge but not before the Cowboys decided to release him. Whitehead appeared on the NFL’s transactions Tuesday.

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Tamba Hali: Rant was about desire to win a championship

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Tamba Hali went on Facebook Live to clear the air Tuesday night, saying his frustration stems from his desire to win. The Chiefs linebacker talked for almost six minutes, clarifying a series of angry tweets he had over the weekend about a lack of playing time in the playoff loss to the Steelers.

The social media rant was not well received by Chiefs coach Andy Reid, who criticized Hali for airing his grievances publicly.

“Over the weekend, we had a little bit of typing going, expressing my thoughts and my feelings, how I feel about situations,” Hali said. “I think it got blown out of proportion. All I was trying to say is, at the end of the day, I love the game. I want to bring the Kansas City Chiefs a championship. I’ve been here going on my 12th year, and I’ve always wanted to win a championship, and I’ve always given it my all. I’ve always wanted to win a championship, and I’ve always been a part of the equation. What happened last year is I just wanted to win. I think anyone can bear with me and understand that the frustration of losing a game in the playoffs and barely playing. Being a competitor, you just want to win. That was basically what the rant was about.”

Hali played only seven snaps in the team’s playoff loss to the Steelers. He started only two games last season, making 3.5 sacks, the second-fewest of his career, as Dee Ford and Justin Houston solidified starting roles.

Hali said he has talked to the Chiefs and vowed to show up on time for his 12th season.

“I’m all in,” Hali said. “All the guys at the Chiefs understand that I’m one of those guys who loves to compete, and I will continue to compete at a high level. . . . I don’t feel like I’m done. I just want to know where we’re going.”

Hali has appeared in six playoff games in his career, winning only one. He wants a championship before he’s done, and Hali knows time is running out.

“I’m not getting younger,” Hali said. “When I was young, I actually felt like I could play this game forever. Reality has struck. It’s not going to happen that way. I’m not going to play the game forever. There’s going to come a day when I have to be done playing. But time is running out. For us to win a championship, I think coach Reid and his staff has assembled some of the best coaches and players on this team so we can ahead and make a run. We just need to make sure everybody is on board and understand what’s at stake here. It’s real serious business when it comes to football and me. Some people don’t take it that serious. I do. . . .

“I just wanted to clear the air. I’m not looking for more money. I’m not looking for that. I’m not looking for this. I just want to win.”

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Eagles hoping Alshon Jeffery improves their red-zone TD percentage

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Carson Wentz hosted eight of the Eagles’ receivers in North Dakota as they worked and hung out for three days. The most important wideout for him to establish timing with is Alshon Jeffery.

The free agent addition immediately becomes the best receiver Wentz ever has had.

It’s really nice having a guy like Alshon, not only catch radius, but he has some of the strongest hands I’ve ever seen,” Wentz said, via Paul Domowitch of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “The thing with Alshon and I, we just have to keep building that chemistry, building that relationship. … You can just see, he’s kind of a different animal, throwing the ball to him. He can cover some ground. It’s nice to have a guy like that.”

The Eagles ranked 24th in red-zone touchdown percentage last season, converting only 27 of 55 possessions inside the opponents’ 20-yard line into touchdowns. They scored field goals on 22 red-zone possessions.

“Alshon has tremendous ball skills,’’ quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo said. “The way he can track a football in the air, go up with one hand and get a ball. The thing that’s very comforting for a quarterback is when a receiver has a big catch radius, where you don’t have to be pinpoint-accurate all the time, because it’s hard. There’s a guy in your face. You’re trying to find lanes. When you can throw a guy open and feel confident that he’s going to be able to extend his hands outside his body to catch the football, that gives you a lot of confidence as a quarterback.’’

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Jourdan Lewis found not guilty of domestic assault

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An Ann Arbor, Mich., jury found Cowboys rookie cornerback Jourdan Lewis not guilty of domestic assault, according to John Counts of mlive.com. After a little more than an hour of deliberation, a six-member jury determined Lewis did not criminally assault this girlfriend in March.

Per Counts, Lewis did not take the stand, but jurors heard his side of the story in a video recording of his initial interview with police. Lewis’ girlfriend, Nikole Miller, woke him up when she arrived home to find him asleep with the lights on, angering her. Lewis hit her with the pillow he was sleeping on.

“The pillow I was on, I hit her with it,” he said at one point, but also saying at another point that he “threw” the pillow at her.

Lewis was adamant to police that he didn’t strike her with his hands at any point. Instead, Lewis said Miller struck him after he called her a derogatory name.

Miller initially told police Lewis squeezed her neck when he held her down, but when she was interviewed a second time, that detail changed, according to testimony.

Police officers testified that the apartment didn’t appear in disarray as they would expect in an altercation.

Lewis will join his teammates in Oxnard, Calif., after missing the first two days of practice.

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Alex Smith not concerned about Tamba Hali’s tweets, or any tweets

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Chiefs defensive end Tamba Hali expressed his displeasure with the team on Twitter, but Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith isn’t concerned.

That’s partially because Smith believes Hali has proven he’ll always be there for his teammates when it counts, and partially because Smith couldn’t care less about social media at all.

“I didn’t read all of them,” Smith said of Hali’s tweets. “I did hear about it. To be honest, I don’t think it is a huge deal, I don’t want to turn it into anything big. I think Tamba is one of the most unique teammates I have ever had and I mean that in a good way. He is a guy that says what’s on his mind. He is honest. He is sincere. I think I appreciate that about him. Sometimes there are things that are said that just comes out. So, to be honest, I don’t think it is a big deal. I don’t think it’s anything anyone has to worry about. This locker room is as drama free as they come, so I don’t think it will be an issue.”

Smith said he’s personally not on social media, so he doesn’t get involved in the drama that surrounds social media.

“I kind of missed that wave,” Smith said. “That wave passed me by. I remember coming into the league and MySpace was big. I didn’t get on that train and then the Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, all roads passed me. At this point it is kind of refreshing.”

So we will never see Smith complain about the Chiefs on Twitter. Or on MySpace.

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Report: Kenneth Dixon out for the year

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Ravens running back Kenneth Dixon underwent knee surgery Tuesday that was expected to keep him out 6-8 weeks. Instead, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, Dixon will miss the season.

Dixon needed his medial meniscus repaired, not trimmed, requiring a 4-5 month recovery time, according to Rapoport. It was Dixon’s third knee injury in the past 12 months.

Dixon was set to miss the first four games for violating the league’s performance enhancing drug policy.

The Ravens already agreed to terms with Bobby Rainey to take Dixon’s place in camp. Terrance West and Danny Woodhead are the team’s top running backs with Buck Allen and Lorenzo Taliaferro (who is seeing time at fullback as well) also in the mix.

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Reuben Foster expected to be full go for training camp

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The 49ers expect rookie linebacker Reuben Foster to be a full participant for the start of training camp, according to Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee.

San Francisco took a cautious approach with Foster in the spring as he rehabbed from shoulder surgery, holding him out of team practices.

During the draft, some teams worried about the February surgery Foster underwent to repair his right rotator cuff. He feel to 31st, where the 49ers were comfortable in selecting him.

Foster has remained at the team training facility after the offseason program ended.

He will compete with Malcolm Smith at weakside linebacker.

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Raiders place Ben Heeney, Cooper Helfet on NFI

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The Raiders placed linebacker Ben Heeney and tight end Cooper Helfet on the non-football injury list Tuesday.

Heeney ended last season on injured reserve after a Week Four ankle injury, but a non-football injury would indicate this is a different injury. Heeney did not fully participate in the team’s offseason program.

Heeney began last season as the starting middle linebacker, but he lost his job after two games and tore the deltoid ligament in his right ankle two weeks later.

Helfet signed with the Raiders’ practice squad last October. He played 24 games with the Seahawks in 2014-15, with 25 career receptions for 315 yards and two touchdowns.

The Raiders can activate either player at any time.

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Mike Brown on keeping Adam Jones: Blame me if it doesn’t work

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The Bengals decided not to part ways with cornerback Adam Jones this offseason after he was arrested in January after an altercation at a Cincinnati hotel, but team owner Mike Brown says that parting ways with Jones did come up for discussion.

Jones pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor to settle the case and was suspended one game by the league last week. Brown said Jones “has misstepped from time to time,” but that he admires many things about the player and said he made the call to keep him on the team.

“I’m not going to say something wasn’t discussed, something wasn’t considered,” Brown said, via Joe Kay of the Associated Press. “But what we did is what we did, and I’ll take responsibility for it. We’ll see how it turns out in the end. It if turns out well, I’ll be pleased. If it doesn’t, then blame me.”

The topic of drafting running back Joe Mixon also came up during the team’s preseason luncheon and Brown, who previously wrote a letter explaining the Mixon pick that was published in the Cincinnati Enquirer, said he doesn’t “see what’s served by denying someone his opportunity.”

Bob Costas didn’t share the same view during an appearance on CNN last weekend when he said that the Bengals “seem to have been running a halfway house for miscreants” at points in their history. Brown took issue with that (and showed his age) by saying he isn’t “Ma Barker” and that the team does not have “the James boys and Pretty Boy Floyd and John Dillinger” in their locker room.

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Latest brain study shows 110 of 111 donations from NFL players had CTE

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While researchers admit their methodology isn’t exact and they’re not predicting rates for the future, the latest study regarding the link between football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy shows a strong correlation.

Via Rick Maese of the Washington Post, researchers at Boston University who are studying brains donated by families of former NFL players said that 110 of the 111 donations showed signs of CTE.

While that’s not a random sample reflecting the entire sport (the donations come largely from players who were struggling with some issue or had committed suicide), the big numbers do alarm those studying the issue.

“Obviously, this doesn’t represent the prevalence in the general population, but the fact that we’ve been able to gather this high a number of cases in such a short period of time says that this disease is not uncommon,” neuropathologist Ann McKee said. “In fact, I think it’s much more common than we currently realize. And more importantly, this is a problem in football that we need to address and we need to address now in order to bring some hope and optimism to football players.”

All told, the Boston University study covered 202 brains donated by families of men who had played some level of football. CTE was discovered in 177 of them (87 percent). The 99 percent of former NFL players was the highest level. The study also showed CTE in 3-of-14 who played at the high school level (21.4 percent), 48-of-53 who played in college (90.6 percent), 9-of-14 who competed semiprofessionally (64.3 percent) and 7-of-8 who played in the CFL (87.5).

McKee said the study provides: “overwhelming circumstantial evidence that CTE is linked to football.”

The league has pledged to devote $100 million and resources toward the effort, and spoke at the league meetings this spring about specific research into helmet safety.

“We appreciate the work done by Dr. McKee and her colleagues for the value it adds in the ongoing quest for a better understanding of CTE,” league spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a statement provided to PFT. “Case studies such as those compiled in this updated paper are important to further advancing the science and progress related to head trauma. The medical and scientific communities will benefit from this publication and the NFL will continue to work with a wide range of experts to improve the health of current and former NFL athletes. As noted by the authors, there are still many unanswered questions relating to the cause, incidence and prevalence of long-term effects of head trauma such as CTE.  The NFL is committed to supporting scientific research into CTE and advancing progress in the prevention and treatment of head injuries.

“In 2016, the NFL pledged $100 million in support for independent medical research and engineering advancements in neuroscience related topics. This is in addition to the $100  million that the NFL and its partners are already spending on medical and neuroscience research.”

The authors of the studies have admitted some limitations, pointing out that the game has changed in recent years from equipment changes to rules. But the sheer size of the numbers still stand as worthy of further study.

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Jaguars lock up Brandon Linder with five-year extension

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The Jaguars may not be sure if Blake Bortles is their quarterback for the long term, but they seem to be pretty certain that Brandon Linder is the guy they want snapping the ball.

Jacksonville announced that they have signed starting center Brandon Linder to a five-year extension.

“It was something we wanted to get done so now we can just ball,” Linder said, via Ryan O’Halloran of the Florida Times-Union. “We knew after OTAs we wanted to talk. In the past two weeks [we] got some traction.”

Ian Rapoport of NFL Media reports that the Jaguars have signed their starting center to the deal is worth up to $51.7 million. The deal also reportedly includes $24 million in guaranteed money.

Linder’s deal puts him at the very top of the salary scale for centers with his average salary per year coming in above what Travis Frederick got in his 2016 extension from the Cowboys.

Linder, who was selected in the third round of the 2014 draft, opened his career at guard in Jacksonville before moving over to center last season. He made 14 starts and it would appear he made a strong impression on Doug Marrone, who was his position coach before moving up to head coach after Gus Bradley was fired last season.

 

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