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NFL morning after: The unappreciated Jay Cutler

Bears quarterback Cutler is pressured by Vikings defensive end Griffen during the first half of their NFL football game at Soldier Field in Chicago Reuters

If you don’t like Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, you’re not alone. A poll of fans conducted last season found that Cutler was one of the Top 5 most disliked players in the NFL.

And if you’re looking for reasons not to like Cutler, you saw one when the Bears beat the Vikings on Sunday: Cutler committed one of the dumber penalties of the day when he ran out of bounds and then threw the ball at Vikings cornerback A.J. Jefferson. Throwing the ball at an opponent is an automatic 15-yard penalty, as every NFL player should know. Yes, Cutler can be an idiot sometimes.

But if you don’t think Cutler is a good quarterback, well, you’re wrong. Cutler’s abilities were on display in Sunday’s 28-10 win over the Vikings, but they were even more on display in the way the Bears completely fell apart without him a week ago against the 49ers. And Cutler’s importance to the Bears is on display in every game he misses: In the last three years, in games Cutler both started and finished, the Bears are 26-9. In games Cutler either missed entirely or was knocked out because of an injury in the first half, the Bears are 1-8.

No, Cutler doesn’t put up the kinds of numbers that the NFL’s elite quarterbacks produce, but Cutler doesn’t have anywhere near the kind of offensive talent surrounding him that the NFL’s elite quarterbacks have. The Bears have had one of the NFL’s worst offensive lines for Cutler’s entire tenure in Chicago, and they only got a high-level wide receiver for the first time this year, when they traded for Brandon Marshall.

I believe it’s that Chicago offensive line and that Chicago receiving corps — as well as, yes, acting like a jerk at times by doing things like throwing a ball at an opponent — that has made Cutler one of the most underappreciated players in the NFL. This is a good quarterback, playing on a team that appears headed toward the playoffs, in the NFL’s second-biggest media market, and he should get more credit than he does.

Cutler has a great opportunity, however, to change the way he’s regarded over the next couple of months. With the Bears right in the thick of the NFC playoff race, Cutler has the chance to do what he didn’t do when a knee injury knocked him out of the NFC Championship Game a couple years ago, and play the best football of his career on the biggest stage. I think Cutler is going to open some eyes in December and January. And maybe by February, he won’t be unappreciated anymore.

Here are my other thoughts on Sunday’s games:

Robert Ayers was the toughest player in the league on Sunday. Ayers, a backup defensive end for the Broncos, found out late on Saturday night that his father had died suddenly. But instead of heading home right away, he decided to stay in Kansas City to be there for his team against the Chiefs. Ayers played and played well in a 17-9 win in which the Broncos’ defense shut down the Chiefs’ offense, then was awarded a game ball in the locker room afterward and headed home to tend to his family.

Jared Allen got away with a brutal cheap shot. While his teammate Antoine Winfield was returning an interception, Allen launched himself directly into the head of Bears offensive lineman Lance Louis, delivering a hit that knocked Louis out of the game. Allen said after the game that he thought the hit was legal, but he’s wrong. That’s a blatant penalty that the officials somehow missed, but the league office won’t. Allen is in for a big fine.

The Chiefs got too cute. Kansas City’s opening drive against Denver was running smoothly, with an emphasis on running: Out of the Chiefs’ first nine offensive plays, eight of them were runs, and those eight runs produced 48 yards. So what on earth were the Chiefs thinking with the play they called on third-and-3 in the red zone? Instead of running it again, the Chiefs called a bizarre trick play on which running back Peyton Hillis took the snap, ran to his right, then turned around and threw it to quarterback Brady Quinn. Hillis’s pass showed that there’s a reason he’s not a quarterback: He threw an ugly duck that didn’t even get close, falling to the ground a few feet in front of Quinn. That was a dumb play call that stopped a promising drive.

Something has to be done about the officials, Part 1. Everyone saw the horrendous call on Thanksgiving in which the officials somehow ruled that Texans running back Justin Forsett had run 81 yards for a touchdown, even though he was obviously down after just eight yards. But on Sunday not as many people noticed that the opposite mistake was made in the 49ers-Saints game: San Francisco receiver Michael Crabtree caught a pass, got hit, put his hand down to steady himself and kept running, about to break a big play — except that the officials whistled the play dead, wrongly thinking Crabtree had been down. If we can’t count on the officials to get it right on a call as fundamental as whether or not a player was down, what can we count on them to get right?

Something has to be done about the officials, Part 2. Remember during the lockout, how everyone complained that the replacement refs were dragging out the games by taking way too long to make their rulings? No delays from the replacement refs were as bad as the ridiculous delay late in Sunday’s Ravens-Chargers game. After Ray Rice made an amazing play to turn a short pass into a first down on fourth-and-29, the officials delayed the game by a whopping 10 minutes to watch a replay and re-measure the spot of the ball, only to discover that it had been correctly ruled a first down on the field all along. A 10-minute delay late in the fourth quarter of a close game takes all the energy out of the building. Make the call and move on, refs.

Anyone want to help Charlie Batch out? With Batch, the Steelers’ 38-year-old third-string quarterback, pressed into duty on Sunday, the Steelers needed to get big games from their running backs. Instead, Pittsburgh’s four running backs — Rashard Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Chris Rainey — combined for just 49 yards on 20 carries, while fumbling six times. Mendenhall and Rainey had two fumbles apiece, while Dwyer and Redman each had one. The Steelers’ eight turnovers were the most for any NFL team in one game since 2001, and the Steelers were upset by the Browns.

Jim Harbaugh made the right decision. Colin Kaepernick is a better quarterback than Alex Smith, and if anyone doubted it before, no one should doubt it after Kaepernick led the 49ers to a big win at New Orleans on Sunday. Harbaugh was wise to bench Smith in favor of Kaepernick, who is now 2-0 as a starter with wins over the Bears (playing without Cutler) and Saints. With Kaepernick under center, the 49ers are going to be a tough team to beat in January. Although if they meet again in the playoffs, I like the Bears’ chances with a healthy Cutler.

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Jordy Nelson not practicing, but not worried after hip surgery

Jordy Nelson AP

Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson needed to have hip surgery earlier this offseason and coach Mike McCarthy said in late March that the receiver would be “fine” in a couple of weeks.

It’s now late May, but Nelson hasn’t started practicing with the team. He was stretching and throwing the ball on the sideline during Thursday’s OTA and said after practice that there wasn’t a timetable for when he’ll be back to full speed, although he added that there was also no major concern as the season draws closer.

“Not necessarily,” Nelson said, via the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “We’re just going to continue to progress going forward. Like I said, we’re excited where we’re at and don’t have any worries about anything that’s of importance down the road.”

If Nelson is feeling well enough to get on the field before training camp, that would probably suit the Packers fine. There’s plenty of time for him to be sure all is well before camp and little reason for a veteran of his significance to the team to push things before that point, however.

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Michael Oher fitting in nicely as the Panthers’ latest left tackle

Michael Oher AP

So wait, what you’re telling me is that Michael Oher just wanted someone to take him in, to make him feel like part of the family? Sounds like a movie.

But the Panthers new left tackle was simply talking about his new team, as he tries to fit in at the most important position on the offensive line.

It seemed like they wanted me,” Oher said of the Panthers, via Jonathan Jones of the Charlotte Observer. “I got the [same] feeling going into my rookie year of not wanting to let guys down and guys with a winning culture.

“For me, it’s about getting back to the basics and fundamentals of doing everything right. Looking myself in the mirror knowing what I have to do and getting better from within.”

The Panthers need him to get back to when he was a good tackle, because he’s their third left tackle in as many years, and last year’s experiment (Byron Bell) was kind of a disaster.

But the Panthers are counting on Oher being healthy (after a toe problem bothered him last year with the Titans) and his old Ravens position coach (John Matsko) getting him back to his previous level of stability.

“Knowing the two of them have a positive relationship, they’ve worked well together,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “He worked very well for coach Matsko, and then at the end of the day he wanted to be here. That’s one of the things that he told us that impressed us. He said he wanted to be here and needed to improve and work on certain things and get back on track.

“Just hearing that from a player, and then watching him after he signed his contract. He was here and he’s been here since; that’s very pleasing.”

Probably mostly so to Cam Newton, who did too much running for his life last year, and could use someone to keep him upright so he could work on passing from a pocket.

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Tim Tebow enjoying his next last chance to make NFL mark

PHILADELPHIA, PA - MAY 28: Tim Tebow #11 of the Philadelphia Eagles walks off the field after OTA's on May 28, 2015 at the NovaCare Complex in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) Getty Images

Being two years out of the league, Tim Tebow’s not about to take any opportunity for granted.

So even if he’s a bit of a curiosity, and no better than third on the Eagles’ depth chart, he’s still all smiles.

“I think sometimes when things are taken away, then you don’t realize how much fun it is to come out here and play this game,” Tebow said, via Nate Davis of USA Today. “You can’t play it forever, so I’m going to enjoy it.”

While many thought he was done after his training camp stint with the Patriots two years ago, he said he continued to train as if his next chance was coming any day. As for competition, he said a family gathering provided that.

“I still competed. I trained every single day,” he said. “You should have seen the Tebow Turkey Bowl. It was the craziest thing ever.

“I’m serious. We had uniforms.”

He said he thought his offseason work with quarterback tutor Tom House had helped, specifically mentioning his balance, posture and timing.

“I think he’s improved,” Eagles coach Chip Kelly said. “He’s had a lot of time the last two years working at his game. [We] wanted to have a fourth quarterback here.”

Kelly also said Tebow’s only there as a quarterback, scuttling any idea of a position switch. And with his proposal to move two-point conversions to the 1-yard line voted down, keeping him around for that job might not be as important as it might have been.

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Jameis Winston impressing with his work ethic in Bucs camp

TAMPA, FL - MAY 9: Quarterback Jameis Winston #3 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers works out during Rookie Mini Camp at One Buccaneer Place on May 9, 2015 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Buccaneers have found their first issue with quarterback Jameis Winston, already running into something he struggles with.

We have to kind of tell him when to leave,” Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith said, via Pat Yasinskas of ESPN.com.

That’s not a bad problem to have for any rookie, much less the first overall pick in the draft. While he wasn’t at Thursday’s practice because of the NFLPA Rookie Premiere event in Los Angeles, getting in enough work hasn’t been an issue.

Smith said he took double reps Wednesday to make up for the absence, and it was his best day of work so far (or perhaps since his marathon pro day workout prior to the draft).

“For him, there’s been a lot of individual work, but having a chance this week to go against our best defense and things like that [has been good],” Smith said. “We have a long ways to go. But we like where he is right now.”

Likewise, teammates have praised Winston for his work, and for always having his playbook on him, and being ready for whatever they throw at him, which has been a lot.

“He didn’t have his training wheels on or anything like that,” Smith said. “We’re kind of throwing him out there and he’s handling just about everything we’ve asked him to do.”

That’s a good sign for the Bucs, but a better sign for Winston, whose maturity many (reasonably) wondered about based on some of his college actions.

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Timing of Clady injury gives Broncos ample time to react

Peyton Manning, Ryan Clady, Rob Ninkovich AP

Two years ago, the Broncos lost left tackle Ryan Clady for the year in Week Two. They made it to the Super Bowl.

Sure, they could have used him against Seattle in the Super Bowl, but the Broncos nevertheless had a very successful season with Clady not contributing much to it. And they had to react to Clady’s absence on the fly, with no time to do anything other than call the next man up.

In 2013, Chris Clark got the assignment. And Clark is still on the team, able to do now what he did then — with a lot more time to prepare for the assignment.

Veteran Ryan Harris, who signed with the Broncos in the immediate aftermath of the Clady injury, can handle the right side, and youngsters Michael Schofield and Ty Sambrailo can compete for reps and provide depth.

Of course, the fact that the latest Clady injury happened in May could prompt a certain quarterback who may be entering the last year of his career to clamor for one or more 2016 draft picks to be dangled in an effort to upgrade the position, especially since said quarterback may not be around when those picks would be used.

Still, it’s much better to have time to react to a major injury. The Broncos did well to replace Clady when they didn’t have that luxury. They’ll now be expected to do it again.

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Ishmaa’ily Kitchen signs restricted tender with Browns

Ish Kitchen Getty Images

Cleveland Browns defensive lineman Ishmaa’ily Kitchen signed his restricted free agent tender with the team on Thursday.

The Browns placed a right of first refusal tender on Kitchen prior to the start of free agency in March. The tender is worth $1.542 million for the 2015 season.

Kitchen appeared in 12 games for Cleveland and made three starts while playing primarily at nose tackle. He recorded 43 tackles for the season. In his three-year career, Kitchen has played in 40 games for the Browns.

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Confusion emerges regarding basis for Hardy discipline

Hardy Getty Images

The Greg Hardy appeal hearing has come and gone, and confusion has emerged regarding one of the most important aspects of the case.

Per a source with knowledge of the situation, Hardy and the NFL Players Association contend that the NFL failed to specify during the hearing whether league imposed on Hardy a 10-game suspension under the Personal Conduct Policy in force at the time of the alleged misconduct or under the version that came later in the year, following the Ray Rice debacle. Hardy and the NFLPA also contend that arbitrator Harold Henderson failed to force the NFL to say which version of the policy was used.

In an appearance last month on ESPN’s Outside the Lines, NFL general counsel Jeff Pash seemed to emphasize that the discipline was imposed under the old policy. But he also made it clear that the investigation occurred under the new procedures that were adopted after the Rice case.

The alleged confusion also comes in the wake of an effort by the union to have the NFL deemed to be in contempt of court for failing to comply with the court order issued in the case filed on behalf of Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. That motion specifically claims that the league applied the new policy retroactively to Hardy, in defiance of the ruling from Judge David Doty to the contrary in Peterson’s case.

Absent a significant reduction in Hardy’s suspension, a lawsuit is inevitable in his case, too. And Hardy could easily win.

But no one would be able to accuse the NFL of going too soft on off-field misconduct. Given that the Rice situation nearly took down a Commissioner, the NFL will never be accused of going too soft on off-field misconduct ever again.

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Report: Giants meet with Jake Long

Jake Long AP

The Giants, who are likely to be without their starting left tackle for at least part of the 2015 season, have reportedly huddled with a four-time Pro Bowler at the position.

Ex-Ram Jake Long, who has struggled with injuries in recent seasons, met with the Giants on Thursday, per Dan Graziano of ESPN.com.

The No. 1 overall pick in 2008 by Miami, the 30-year-old Long has torn his right ACL in back-to-back seasons, most recently on October 26. He also has suffered biceps and triceps tears in 2011 and 2012, respectively. The Rams released Long in March after two seasons.

The Giants’ incumbent left tackle, Will Beatty, suffered a pectoral tear last week. The injury could force first-round pick Ereck Flowers to step into the lineup right off the bat on the left side.

If healthy, Long would bolster the Giants’ tackle depth, giving them insurance in the event Flowers isn’t ready. However, Long would have to pass a physical.

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Adrian Peterson takes aim at the NFLPA

Adrian Peterson AP

Vikings running back Adrian Peterson isn’t happy. The good news is he’s finally admitting it. The bad news is that it’s still not clear who or what he’s not happy with.

After months of leaks and comments from folks close to Peterson but not Peterson suggesting that he’s not happy with the Vikings because of how the team reacted to Peterson’s off-field issue last year, Peterson made it clear on Wednesday night that he’s not happy with a contract that provides him no further guaranteed money. On Thursday, Peterson broadened his attack to encompass the entire system.

On Thursday night, Peterson took specific aim at the NFL Players Association.

“To clarify,” Peterson said on Twitter, “since analysts & everyone else have the answers as to what place in MY Heart this ‘rant‘ came from, this is not against the Vikings. I am just frustrated that our union did not get guaranteed contracts for its players. NFL players deserve guaranteed contracts like Our NBA and MLB brothers. Owners have the right to release players, at will, without honoring their contracts. However, players do not have the luxury of saying that they want out of their contract. And I won’t even get into the franchise tag convo.”

I’m a huge Adrian Peterson fan. I always have been. But I’m definitely not a fan of this new tactic.

Peterson believes he has in some way been wronged, by someone, over the past nine months. Still, a shotgun attack on a system that has made him a very rich man and that has the Vikings ready to pay a 30-year-old running back $12.75 million this year makes little sense.

Four years ago, he could have insisted on a fully-guaranteed contract. Or he could have insisted on a shorter-term deal, which would have allowed him to get a fresh start elsewhere. Instead, with full awareness of a system that was reiterated by a Collective Bargaining Agreement signed not long before he signed his latest contract, Peterson made a seven-year commitment, knowing that the commitment would only go both ways as long as his employer wanted it to.

Peterson made that commitment after comparing pro football to “modern-day slavery.” So he went in with eyes and ears open as to what the NFL is (or as to what he thinks it is), he signed a long-term contract, he willingly and voluntarily took a $12 million signing bonus, he earned more than $35 million over four years at a position that has become largely interchangeable in recent seasons, and he’ll get another $12.75 million this year by simply showing up for work.

It’s unclear whether Peterson is willing to not play this year or to retire if the Vikings don’t guarantee his contract beyond 2015 or if they won’t trade him. It’s possible he simply needed to vent, as he makes his way from anger to bargaining then denial, depression, and finally acceptance.

Regardless, he’s not going to find much sympathy here, or pretty much anywhere.

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Cowboys sign rookie LB Damien Wilson

2015 NFL Scouting Combine Getty Images

The Cowboys almost have their entire rookie class under contract.

Dallas has signed fourth-round selection Damien Wilson, a linebacker from Minnesota, the team said Thursday.

The pact with Wilson leaves cornerback Byron Jones, the Cowboys’ first-round selection, as the only rookie without a deal.

Wilson (6-0, 243) notched 197 tackles (16 for loss) in two seasons with the Golden Gophers. He was timed at 4.77 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine, and he posted a 37-inch vertical leap.

“He’s learning real well, and he’s working real hard, so excited about where’s he going,” Cowboys linebackers coach Matt Eberflus said of Wilson on Wednesday.

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Malcolm Jenkins: No one on the Eagles thinks we have a race issue

malcolmjenkins AP

Former Eagle LeSean McCoy may think Chip Kelly got rid of the good black players, but those who have remained in Philadelphia don’t see it that way.

That’s the word from Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, who said he and his teammates respect Kelly and don’t believe he’s basing his evaluations on race.

“Chip has been very, very transparent on what he’s evaluating us on,” Jenkins said, via CSNPhilly.com. “That’s not only what we do on the field, but what we do in our assessments and how disciplined we are with our nutrition and all the sports science stuff. I haven’t seen him make a move outside of those parameters. I don’t think anybody in the locker room now thinks we have an issue with race. I don’t see that being a problem in the future. I don’t think there’s any need for Chip to address it.”

If other players on the Eagles agree with McCoy about Kelly, it has the potential to undermine Kelly’s ability to coach his team. But their public comments suggest that other players agree with Jenkins that there’s not a race problem on the Eagles.

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DeMaurice Smith suggests Ray Rice is being blackballed

Ray Rice Press Conference Getty Images

NFL Players Association head DeMaurice Smith thinks it doesn’t speak well for the NFL that no team is willing to give Ray Rice another chance.

Smith told Sal Paolantonio of ESPN that Rice, who is not suspended and is eligible to play as soon as a team signs him, would be back in the NFL if teams were willing to give him a fair chance.

“This, unfortunately, is a league that has a history of blackballing players. I find it hard to believe that a player of Mr. Rice’s caliber hasn’t at least gotten one offer from a team to come work out,” Smith said.

The term “blackballing” suggests something underhanded, but the reality is that NFL teams aren’t hiding the fact that they simply don’t want to do business with the man who last year became the poster boy for domestic violence in America. That’s the prerogative of each team, and while the union is free to advocate on Rice’s behalf, there’s not much the union can do about it.

If all 32 NFL teams have decided that they’re never going to give Rice another chance, then Rice has only himself to blame for that.

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Dez Bryant does the smart thing by showing up

Dez Bryant AP

It’s become a given that a player saddled with the franchise tag won’t show up for any workouts or practices until he signs a long-term deal or accepts his one-year franchise tender. But it may not be the smart thing to do — especially if the tagged player plans to work out on his own.

As Broncos G.M. John Elway pointed out several weeks back when venting regarding the absence of receiver Demaryius Thomas, unsigned franchise players who get injured while working out on their own get nothing. Unsigned franchise players who show up pursuant to a letter agreement that guarantees their franchise tender if they tear an ACL or pop out an Achilles who get injured get full pay.

So unless staying away was going to squeeze more money out of the team’s coffers (it wasn’t), why not continue to get ready to have a big season while working out with the team? For Bryant, the best play would be to take the $12.8 million this year, do it again next year at a 20-percent raise ($15.36 million), and then hit the market in 2017 — because there’s no way the Cowboys would pay him $22.11 million under a third franchise tag.

More franchise-tagged players need to consider the wisdom of Bryant’s move. And more will do what Bryant did the minute that one of them suffers a serious injury while unsigned and while working out at the local YMCA.

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Adrian Peterson’s rant misses the mark

Volcano

Mt. Peterson finally erupted. And it went about as well as Peter Brady’s volcano. (Timely reference, I know.)

Arguably he last man who should be painting himself as a victim but who nevertheless tried to shift blame to the Vikings for a predicament created by his own behavior has gone to Twitter for a general rant regarding the system of paying players.

“Question for the people, is a contract two sided or one?” Adrian Peterson asked. “There’s never no talk about honoring a contract!”

But NFL contracts are indeed one-sided, unless they’re individually negotiated to be two-sided. If Peterson wanted in 2011 to ensure that his contract would be two-sided through its final year of 2017, he could have — by insisting on the contract being fully guaranteed for its full duration. When NFL contracts aren’t fully guaranteed, the team can insist on the player honoring every game of every season while in turn having the power to tear up the deal whenever the team wants.

That’s just the way it is, and that system was reiterated via the Collective Bargaining Agreement ratified by the players only weeks before Peterson signed his latest deal.

On one hand, it’s good that Peterson has dropped the passive-aggressive approach with the Vikings. On the other hand, it’s not good that he opted to take a shotgun to a system that won’t be changing — especially after that system (as enhanced by the Commissioner-Exempt list) resulted in Peterson making plenty of money last year from the Vikings despite playing in only one game.

But now that Peterson has decided to attack the situation the same way that he attacks a defense, it may be only a matter of time before Peterson is doing shirtless driveway situps and agent Ben Dogra is rattling off “next question” at a press conference held on Peterson’s front lawn.

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Dez Bryant shows up at Cowboys OTAs, does individual drills

Indianapolis Colts v Dallas Cowboys Getty Images

The Cowboys thought Dez Bryant was in “great shape,” despite his staying away from voluntary workouts and OTAs.

But Thursday, they saw for themselves.

According to Charean Williams of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the franchise-tagged wide receiver showed up at OTAs Thursday and participated in individual drills.

That’s a bit of a surprise, considering he hasn’t signed his $12.823 million franchise tender.

But apparently, Bryant wanted to be around the team, and see his teammates. He apparently went through individual drills, but didn’t do any team drills. Considering what happened to Ryan Clady and Dante Fowler, it’s prudent to not push himself with so much money on the line.

Bryant’s not even required to attend mandatory minicamp since he hasn’t signed yet, but his showing up today is at least a sign of good faith.

Whether it’s a sign of progress toward a long-term deal, or whether Bryant just wanted to get out of the house remains to be seen.

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