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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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24 early entries went undrafted

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The first two days of the NFL draft were big for underclassmen, with 43 of them selected. But the third day of the NFL draft wasn’t as kind to players who turned pro early.

Only 17 underclassmen were selected in Rounds 4-7, which brought the total of underclassmen drafted to 60. With 84 underclassmen declaring for this year’s draft, that means there were 24 players who gave up their remaining NCAA eligibility and weren’t chosen at all.

That doesn’t mean those players made the wrong call — some of them will make NFL rosters as undrafted free agents — but it does serve as a reminder that players need to think long and hard about whether they’re doing the right thing if they decide to give up their college scholarships for a shot at the pros.

Some of those players who turned pro early in January now may be coming to the realization that they’re unlikely ever to make money playing football. Here’s hoping they learned something while they were in college.

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Jaguars sign nine undrafteds, including Auburn’s Nick Marshall

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One of perhaps the 10 best quarterbacks eligible for the 2015 NFL Draft has a new home.

Of course, there were only seven quarterbacks drafted, and this one is changing positions, which says as much about the class as him in particular.

The Jaguars announced the addition of nine undrafted rookies, including cornerback Nick Marshall.

Marshall was a quarterback at Auburn, and his college coach thinks he could play the position at the next level. He might be right, given the supply/demand issues the league is having there.

But for now, he’s a corner, where he participated during the Senior Bowl.

The Jaguars did sign another quarterback, Kansas State’s Jake Walters, along with linebacker Thurston Armbrister (Miami), defensive tackle Eric Crume (Syracuse), running back Corey Grant (Auburn) tight end Connor Hamlett (Oregon State), guard Chris Reed (Minnestoa-Mankato) and linebackers Matt Robinson (Maryland) and Todd Thomas (Pittsburgh).

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Chip Kelly: Tim Tebow isn’t here just to be a camp arm

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When Eagles quarterback Mark Sanchez was asked last month about Tim Tebow’s role with the team last month, he effectively said Tebow was a spare arm to help them through practice until Sam Bradford was well.

Well, coach Chip Kelly disagrees with that assessment, saying Tebow had as much of a shot as anybody.

During an appearance on the NFL Network, Kelly dispelled that notion, such that such a notion can be dispelled before players set foot on the field.

“No. I think everybody here that we bring to our organization is here to compete for a job. That’s what Timmy is going to do,” Kelly said, via NJ.com. “He’s an unbelievable competitor. . . .

“If we were just going to have guys throw drills, we’d take [Mike] Mayock in the offseason and bring him down here and let him throw to them.”

While joking with the league-owned network’s talent might have gotten Kelly out of a potentially uncomfortable line of questioning, it doesn’t make the issue go away.

And while he clearly didn’t get the quarterback he was hoping for this weekend, Kelly’s going to spend plenty of time on the position moving forward, massaging egos and managing expectations.

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Lions “don’t know” if Travis Swanson will start at center

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Coming into the draft, the interior of the offensive line was often mentioned as an area the Lions needed to address and the evaluation was spot on based on what the team did over the last three days.

They drafted guard Laken Tomlinson in the first round after they acquired Manny Ramirez from the Broncos as part of a trade that moved them down to the 28th overall pick. Tomlinson appears ticketed for left guard while 2014 third-rounder Travis Swanson is in line to take over for Dominic Raiola at center, although offensive line coach Jeremiah Washburn said he’s not ready to name him the starter at this point in the offseason.

“I don’t know,” Washburn said, via the Detroit Free Press. “And I’m not trying to be evasive, I just don’t know. What is it, May 2, 3rd? The depth kind of develops itself, which is a nice thing. Going through OTAs, mini-camp, training camp, it always takes care of itself.”

The best outcome for the Lions would be for Tomlinson and Swanson to establish themselves as the best options with the first team while Ramirez provides them with an experienced reserve at both guard and center. Should second-round running back Ameer Abdullah do the same, the Lions will likely be able to do a better job of moving the ball on the ground this season.

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Jay Gruden: Alfred Morris “won’t be affected” by Matt Jones’s arrival

Alfred Morris, Malcolm Jenkins AP

Bolstering the run game appears to have been on Redskins General Manager Scot McCloughan’s mind when the team went into the draft this year.

He selected Brandon Scherff in the first round to provide some needed talent to the team’s offensive line and then added two more offensive linemen as the draft wrapped up on Saturday. They also drafted former Florida running back Matt Jones to the roster in a move that coach Jay Gruden said would have no impact on incumbent starter Alfred Morris’s role in Washington.

“No, no, Alfred won’t be affected,” Gruden said, via the team’s website. “Alfred’s still the running back here. He’s had three great seasons and that won’t change, but to add another guy that can come in here and pound the rock a little bit doesn’t hurt anything. It’ll help Alfred in that regard taking some carries off of him, but for the most part, Alfred will be getting the bulk of the carries and Matt will get some too, obviously.”

At 6-foot-2 and 231 pounds, pounding the rock should be Jones’s speciality as a ball carrier at the professional level. He also earned good marks for his pass blocking, which should set him up well as a complementary piece for Gruden to use behind Morris. If he proves capable of doing more than that it’s all the better for the Redskins, but a capable reserve is really what they need as Morris accounted for all but 19 of last year’s carries by tailbacks currently on the roster.

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Broncos add four undrafted offensive linemen

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The Broncos drafted a pair of offensive linemen over the last two days of the draft and they continued addressing the area after the draft came to an end.

Denver announced nine undrafted free agent signings and the group includes four more blocking prospects for a team that’s moving in a different direction up front with head coach Gary Kubiak installing his offensive scheme. They signed Mississippi State center Dillon Day, who was a four-year starter, to go with fourth-round pick Max Garcia and former Clemson Tiger Kalon Davis on the interior of the line.

The Broncos drafted tackle Ty Sambrailo in the second round and they filled out the depth chart at the position with Wyoming’s Connor Rains and Nevada’s Kyle Roberts.

Nebraska linebacker Zaire Anderson, Boise State wide receiver Matt Miller, Oklahoma defensive tackle Chuka Ndulue, Rice WR Jordan Taylor and Clemson defensive lineman Josh Watson round out the group of undrafted additions to the Denver roster.

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Seven quarterbacks drafted, fewest since 1955

mariota AP

Although quarterbacks went 1-2 in this year’s NFL draft, from top to bottom NFL teams viewed this as one of the weakest years for quarterback prospects ever.

As a result, only seven quarterbacks were drafted — the fewest in any NFL draft since six quarterbacks were taken in 1955.

After Jameis Winston went first to the Buccaneers and Marcus Mariota went second to the Titans, the rest of the quarterback picks were sparse: The Saints took Garrett Grayson and the Rams took Sean Mannion in the third round, the Jets took Bryce Petty in the fourth round, the Packers took Brett Hundley in the fifth round and the Broncos took Trevor Siemian in the seventh round.

In that 1955 draft, with only six quarterbacks drafted, George Shaw went first overall to the Baltimore Colts. That didn’t work out very well; Shaw had a mediocre career. But in the ninth round that year, the Steelers took quarterback Johnny Unitas. That worked out pretty well for the Colts, as Unitas got cut without ever playing a game for the Steelers, and then headed to Baltimore where he became one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.

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Bryce Petty wants to prove the other 31 teams wrong

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If Tom Petty was drafted by the Jets in the fourth round on Saturday, he might have opened his conference call with the media by saying that the waiting was the hardest part.

It was Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty that the Jets traded up to take, however, and that means there were fewer song lyrics when he talked about being drafted a little later than he hoped. Petty was touted as a potential first-round pick or second day selection, but he had to wait a bit longer to run down his dream of being drafted. Petty said that waiting until the fourth round didn’t hurt his confidence or his desire to make the rest of the league regret letting him linger.

“You have people that question you and that was their decision, so my job now is to prove to the other 31 teams what they’re missing out on,” Petty said, via the New York Post. “I’m so excited to be a Jet right now and get to further my playing career in New York, and that’s all I’m worried about now. I’m still very confident in my abilities. I think you have to, as any competitor, especially at quarterback and especially at quarterback in the NFL. You’re graded on two things and that is wins and losses.”

General Manager Mike Maccagnan said he thinks Petty has “all the physical attributes and parts” to be a successful quarterback in the NFL, but he and coach Todd Bowles stressed that they feel he needs time to put those tools to use in an NFL offense. The presence of Geno Smith and Ryan Fitzpatrick should give him that time in 2015, although 2016 might be a different story if those two can’t lead an improved supporting cast to better results.

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No University of Tennessee players drafted for first time since 1963

Justin Coleman AP

The SEC might have had the most players picked from any collegiate conference for the ninth year in a row, but it wasn’t a banner day for all of the schools from that neck of the woods.

The University of Tennessee ranks among the most prolific producers of NFL talent, but none of the members of last year’s squad were able to get an NFL team to volunteer interest in a Volunteer. For the first time since 1963, no members of the Tennessee team were drafted into the NFL.

Tennessee was 7-6 under coach Butch Jones last season and had two players invited to the combine. Linebacker A.J. Johnson was one of them, but he’s facing rape charges that chilled his draft hopes. Cornerback Justin Coleman was the other invitee and the school announced that he’s heading to the Vikings as an undrafted free agent.

They also announced that punter Matt Darr is signing with the Dolphins while defensive lineman Jordan Williams will try to earn a job on the talented Jets front.

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Brett Hundley: Getting drafted by Packers “a blessing in disguise”

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It’s fair to say that remaining on the board until the fifth round and going after five other quarterbacks wasn’t the way that quarterback Brett Hundley saw his draft experience playing out, but he found a positive spin to put on his Day Three selection by the Packers.

Hundley said that he thought he’d be drafted in the second or third round and said your “expectations are hurt” when things don’t play out the way you have them in your mind. Now he’s going to Green Bay where he can learn from Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy while working to show the rest of the league that they were wrong to leave him hanging for so long.

“It’s a blessing in disguise and you know I have a chip on my shoulder, and I’m coming in to work, and that’s what I’ve come down to,” Hundley said, via the Green Bay Press-Gazette. “I’m just coming in, I’ve got my opportunity. That’s the way I look at it. It’s a blessing in disguise. You always have expectations of going No. 1 or high in the draft, but everything happens for a reason, and that’s how I look at it. If I’m supposed to be here, this is where I’m supposed to be, and I’m going to make the most of it.”

Packers director of player personnel Eliot Wolf said he was “shocked” Hundley was available with the 147th pick and that unexpected drop is why General Manager Ted Thompson sent a seventh-round pick to New England to move up for a quarterback he didn’t have designs on taking. Coach Mike McCarthy said Hundley had “a lot to work with” and he’ll try to use those skills to land the backup job this summer.

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Steelers planning reduced role for James Harrison

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The Steelers opened their draft by taking outside linebacker Bud Dupree and they added another one in Miami’s Anthony Chickillo in the sixth round, which fits with their plans for James Harrison for the coming season.

Harrison returned to the Steelers after last season began and was playing a full-time role in the defense by the time the year came to an end. Harrison is back with the team again this year, but linebackers coach Joey Porter said he’s already told Harrison not to expect the same kind of playing time in 2015.

“He knows where he is,” Porter said, via the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “I told him already, the James Harrison [of before] is over. … Harrison is going to be a better player for us if I keep his snap count down to 25. I’ll get the best James Harrison I can out of him instead of trying to make him play like he was — 25-60 snaps a game.”

Plans can change, though, and the Steelers know that well. When they drafted Jarvis Jones two years ago, they planned on playing him across from Jason Worilds and not having Harrison on the roster at all. Should Dupree take a while to transition to the pro game, the Steelers may find themselves with a different plan for Harrison come the regular season.

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Florida State sets new record for draft picks in three-year span

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As conferences go, the SEC might consider itself kings of the NFL Draft.

But as individual schools go, it’s an ACC member that has current bragging rights.

Via Safid Deen of the Tallahassee Democrat, Florida State broke the modern record for players drafted in a three-year span, pumping 29 draft picks into the league.

When five Seminoles were drafted Saturday, it pushed this year’s crop of picks to 11, matching last year after they sent seven into the draft in 2013.

That tops the record of 28 previously held by Miami (2002-2004) and USC (2008-2010), going back to 1994 when the draft was shortened to seven rounds.

“Days like [Saturday] are why you coach,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “I’m really proud of all of these guys. . . .  For FSU to be able to get the modern three-year record, it’s a testament to our assistant coaches and our support staff, and our ability to develop players.

“But most importantly it’s a testament to the work these players have put in. We’ve had some terrific players come through the program the past three years, but they’re even better people.”

While there might be some debate about that final point in some quarters, there’s no question the Seminoles have been good at football, winning 39 of 42 games and a national championship game during that span.

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Mike Pettine: Browns “not going to over-prioritize the QB position”

Mike Pettine AP

There wasn’t a quarterback rumor during the 2015 NFL Draft that didn’t involve the Browns at some level.

Yet they got out of the weekend without one, and Browns coach Mike Pettine said that was fine with him.

That leaves them with Josh McCown, Johnny Manziel, Connor Shaw and Thad Lewis, a group which might not inspire fear in the rest of the AFC North.

“I don’t think we can emphasize it enough that we’re going to build a football team,” Pettine said, via Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “We’re not going to over-prioritize the quarterback position.”

Pettine specifically denied the suggestion they were trying to move up in the fourth round to get Bryce Petty, though he admitted trying to trade up into Jacksonville’s spot.
“We had him slated at a certain spot and that wasn’t our place where we wanted to make that move,” General Manager Ray Farmer said of Petty. “The inference came because the team that actually ended up taking the player thought we were going to take their player.”

Likewise, they denied ever being very involved in the Marcus Mariota discussions with Tennessee, and they didn’t leave the weekend with Sam Bradford (because the Eagles couldn’t get to Mariota etiher).

Of course, there’s also a supply and demand issue as well, as only seven quarterbacks were drafted, not all of them very good. But the same could be said of their depth chart.

“We go 11 against 11, we’re not just trotting quarterbacks out on the 50-yard line and thumb wrestling,” Pettine said. “To me there are a lot of different ways to win football games. You just don’t force the situation. If we perceive our quarterback group is not the best in the division, what does that mean? Do we call the league and cancel games? You still gotta play.”

If they can win games that way, that’s a fine stance to take. But if they don’t, they also have to know that the lack of an answer (short-term or long) is going to be one of the reasons why.

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Chargers reach deals with 21 undrafted free agents

Cole Stoudt AP

The son of a former NFL quarterback is among 21 rookie free agents who have reached agreements with the Chargers, the team announced after the draft on its website.

Clemson quarterback Cole Stoudt, who threw for 1,892 yards and completed 63.2 percent of his passes in 2014, is set to join San Diego. He is the son of Cliff Stoudt, who had a 13-season NFL career in stints with the Steelers, Cardinals, Dolphins and Cowboys.

In addition, the Chargers reached deals with the following undrafted rookies: Northwestern OLB Ikechi Ariguzo, Boston College CB Manuel Asprilla, Mississippi State OG Ben Beckwth, Minnesota DE Cameron Botticelli, Cincinnati OT Tyreek Burwell, Western Kentucky OT Cameron Clemmons, Central Michigan WR Titus Davis, Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo LB Nick Dzubnar, Ball State RB Jahwan Edwards, Marshall TE Eric Frohnapel, Ohio State ILB Curtis Grant, Nevada OLB Brock Hekking, Sacred Heart DB Gordon Hill, Texas A&M PK Josh Lembo, Iowa S Johnny Lowdermilk, Kansas State LB-FB Ryan Mueller, Albany TE Brian Parker, West Virginia RB Dreamius Smith, Western Oregon Tyrell Williams, Arkansas WR Demetrious Wilson.

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For some veteran free agents, draft choices cast doubt on decisions

Hakeem Nicks AP

When the days before the draft grow shorter, it’s a scary time for veteran free agents.

They have to weigh whether to take offers available before the draft, or run the risk of having those offers go away when teams find younger, perhaps better and certainly cheaper alternatives. It’s an expensive game of chicken, and often players will blink at the last minute.

The saying around the league is “get in where you fit in,” but with the 2015 NFL Draft in the books, a pair of veteran wideouts might be re-thinking their decisions.

Of course, Greg Jennings got a pretty lucrative deal from Miami, but both he and Tennessee’s Hakeem Nicks were promptly covered up by the end of the weekend.

When Jennings signed with the Dolphins, it seemed like good business (in addition to the two years and $8 million). Though they acquired Kenny Stills in trade to go with emerging Jarvis Landry, there seemed to still be a chance for him to have more of a role in the offense.

But when they used their first-rounder on Louisville’s DeVante Parker, Jennings became a rather expensive stable pony, a guy whose job will be to mentor young players moreso than catch flying things.

When Nicks picked the Titans, it wasn’t for the same kind of money or fanfare, but it at least looked like he had a chance to contribute behind Kendall Wright and Harry Douglas and Justin Hunter.

But then the Titans used a second-rounder on boom-or-bust Dorial Green-Beckham and a seventh on intriguing project Tre McBride, the depth chart became really crowded.

Nicks didn’t have the same kind of interest in the market as Jennings (who also visited the Saints, Panthers and Jaguars), but it became a lot harder for him to resurrect his career this weekend.

Now he might have to wait for the next crack at free agency to find a team willing to throw the ball to him, a chance that may come as soon as August.

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