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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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Bob McNair thinks Vince Wilfork won’t be another Ed Reed

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Two years ago, the Texans gave $5 million in guaranteed money to an 11-year veteran defender who had just won a Super Bowl.  It didn’t work out.

This year, the Texans once again gave $5 million in guaranteed money to an 11-year veteran defender who had just won a Super Bowl.  Some wonder whether it will work out.

Obviously, owner Bob McNair believes Vince Wilfork won’t be another Ed Reed.  Otherwise, the Texans wouldn’t have taken a chance on a player that Patriots coach Bill Belichick opted to not keep around.  So what’s the difference between Reed and Wilfork?

“I think the difference is when you have someone at a position where they have to be able to run, then age is more of a consideration,” McNair said at the league meetings, via Tania Ganguli of ESPN.com.  “We thought Ed was in good shape and was going to be able to come down and play and he was a big disappointment.  At nose tackle, you don’t have to run that much.  He’s got to be strong.  So there’s some positions you can play for more years and you aren’t taking as much risk.”

The notion that old guys are more likely to lose speed than strength seems a little simplistic.  Plenty of fast guys retain their speed well into their 30s.  Plenty of strong guys lose their strength well before turning 40.

The biggest difference between Reed and Wilfork is that Reed was damaged goods when he signed with the Texans.  The Texans didn’t notice that Reed needed hip surgery when giving him a passing grade on his physical.

So it’s less embarrassing for the Texans to distinguish Reed and Wilfork based on the speed vs. strength of older players, and not to remind everyone that whoever gave Reed a clean bill of health in 2013 made a major mistake.  Ultimately, Reed’s short stay in Houston had a lot more to do with the hip problem the team didn’t spot than an age-related reduction in his speed.

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Donald Stephenson gets a clean slate in Kansas City

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Last year, Donald Stephenson was expected to start at right tackle for the Chiefs.  A four-game suspension for violating the league’s PED policy derailed that plan.

Entering 2015, G.M. John Dorsey says Stephenson gets a fresh shot at becoming the starting right tackle.

“There’s some things that occurred last year, but it’s a clean slate,” Dorsey said at the league meetings, via Terez A. Paylor of the Kansas City Star.  “So what he has to do is set the little things into motion that professionals do in terms of obtaining that starting position.

“So what you do is take little steps, ultimately building toward bigger goals that you set for yourself. And I think you go in and challenge yourself on a daily basis.  You go in and do the little things it takes to be truly professional — do not take this game for granted.”

The Chiefs have overhauled their line this offseason, adding guards Ben Grubbs and Paul Fanaika and letting center Rodney Hudson leave via free agency.  Stephenson ultimately started no games in 2014, but he appeared in each of the 12 that followed his suspension.

Stephenson and Jeff Allen most likely will be the primary competitors for the starting job at right tackle.

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Pete Carroll says Chip Kelly knows what he’s doing

Kelly Getty Images

A rash of unpredictable offseason moves has caused many Eagles fans to question the acumen and/or sanity of coach Chip Kelly.  Seahawks coach Pete Carroll believes they shouldn’t worry.  Instead, Carroll thinks they should be the opposite of worried.

“I think the people in Philadelphia should be very excited about the changes that are coming,” Carroll said at the league meetings in Arizona, via CSNPhilly.com.  “Maybe they can’t see it — the vision is not clear to them.  Chip knows what he’s doing.  It’s going to be interesting to see.”

It’s definitely going to be interesting.  It could be interesting, however, and disastrous.  Carroll is far more optimistic.

“His record and his history has proven that he knows what he’s doing and that he has his act together,” Carroll said of Kelly.  “I know he’s really excited to have the opportunity to be in the position to mold the team.  I wouldn’t doubt for a second that he’s not on it.  He knows what he wants and what he needs.  He’s proven that.”

Kelly took the Eagles to the playoffs in his first season with the team, but failed to return in 2014 — despite finishing with a 10-6 record.  Another failure to qualify for the postseason will place even more pressure on Kelly for what could be a make-or-break season in 2016.

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Desmond Bishop to visit 49ers on Monday

Bishop Getty Images

The 49ers need linebackers.  The next one they add may be one that was on the team at the end of the 2014 season.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com reports that Desmond Bishop will visit the 49ers on Monday.  He appeared the final two games of the season.

Bishop spent time with the Cardinals in 2014 after one season with the Vikings and five with the Packers.

A member of Green Bay’s Super Bowl XLV championship team, the 29-year-old Bishop has 27 career regular-season starts.

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Jadeveon Clowney: I’m making progress, and I’m very encouraged

Clowney Getty Images

Jadeveon Clowney, the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s draft whose rookie season was cut short by a serious knee injury, says he’s doing well in his recovery.

Clowney declined to say how soon he might be back to 100 percent after microfrature surgery, but he is trending in the right direction.

“I’m not going to speak on that, but I’m making progress, and I’m very encouraged,” Clowney told the Houston Chronicle. “I’m working hard, but we’re not going to rush it.”

Clowney says he’s working harder now than he did when he was practicing last season.

“Rehab is tough, tougher than playing. You have to get there earlier than everybody and leave later than everybody,” he said.

Microfracture surgery is serious business, and some athletes never come all the way back from it. The Texans have to hope all of Clowney’s hard work pays off, and that his health allows him to live up to his enormous talent.

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Russell Wilson hits HR in cameo appearance in Rangers camp

Russell Wilson AP

Russell Wilson was a mediocre pro baseball player before he became an outstanding pro quarterback.

But Saturday, he showed a flash in the batting cage similar to his early run in the NFL.

According to Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times, Wilson sent one over the fence during his batting practice with the Texas Rangers in Surprise, Ariz., surprising even himself.

I haven’t swung a bat in about two years,” he said.

Wilson also took ground balls, during his second annual cameo in Rangers camp. Texas chose Wilson in the Rule 5 Draft giving them the right to have the Seahawks quarterback hang around.

Wilson was drafted by the Rockies in the fourth round of the 2010 draft as a second baseman, when he was also playing football at N.C. State.

He hit .229 in 93 games, giving no indication there was much of a future in it. Saturday’s swing notwithstanding, it seems he made the right call.

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Jared Allen wants to prove he belongs: “I’m good still. Really”

Chicago Bears v Carolina Panthers Getty Images

The Bears are still figuring out how best to use Jared Allen, since they’re kind of contractually stuck with him.

But after a disappointing first year in Chicago, Allen vows to show everyone this year that he still has plenty left in the tank, and he started that campaign when he met with General Manager Ryan Pace and coach John Fox last week.

“I was less anxious and so much more eager to talk to them,” Allen said, via Dan Wiederer of the Chicago Tribune. “Just to say, ‘Hey guys. I know the film from last year only shows 5.5 sacks. But don’t believe that’s all I have left.

I’m good still. Really.”

Of course, Allen’s going to have to prove it in a foreign defense, as the Bears are shifting to a 3-4 system that will require him to play outside linebacker if he’s going to see the field on anything other than passing downs.

But as he comes to the twilight of a brilliant career (he turns 33 next week), Allen feels compelled to go out on his terms, to prove he’s still an impact pass-rusher even if he didn’t look like one last year.

“There are three reasons guys hang on,” Allen said. “Some need the money. Some need the identity the NFL gives them. So they stick around for that. Some guys genuinely think they still have it. . . . I’m selfish enough that if I didn’t truly think I still had it, I’d walk away. I’m in the top 10 all time [in sacks]. I have a 12-sack per-year average. I don’t want to end to end my career with an eight-sack per-year average, right?

“I can’t let last season be my lasting impression, the image of a guy who was hurt and sick and pissed off,” he says. “That’s not me. … This is not about making the best of a bad situation. It’s about being the best again in an environment where I can be.”

If he can adapt late in his caerer, he’ll have that opportunity.

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Lance Briggs to visit the 49ers on Monday

New York Giants v Chicago Bears Getty Images

With a big hole to fill at inside linebacker, the 49ers identified Mason Foster and Lance Briggs as two potential targets in free agency this week. Foster signed with the Bears instead, but Briggs is heading to San Francisco for a visit.

Briggs told Vaughn McClure of ESPNChicago.com that he will visit with the 49ers on Monday. Briggs is from the area and grew up a 49ers fan.

The 34-year-old Briggs was informed by the Bears this year that he won’t be back in Chicago, but he says he can “still perform at an elite level.” That’s debatable, but if Briggs can be anything close to the player he once was, he’d represent a major upgrade for the 49ers. With the retirements of Chris Borland and Patrick Willis, San Francisco desperately needs help at the position.

If Briggs doesn’t sign with the 49ers, other options include the Buccaneers (where he’d be reunited with former Bears coach Lovie Smith) and Cowboys (where he’d be reunited with Rod Marinelli, an assistant on Smith’s staff who is now the Cowboys’ defensive coordinator). Even at his advanced age, there are probably a few defenses that Briggs can help, and he’ll likely sign with one soon.

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Chiefs see Andy Reid and Alex Smith as a Super Bowl combination

Andy Reid, Alex Smith (11) AP

The Chiefs are confident that they have the two most important pieces in place to win a Super Bowl.

Chiefs owner Clark Hunt said that in head coach Andy Reid and quarterback Alex Smith, Kansas City has exactly what it needs to get a title.

“We’ve got a coach and a quarterback who can take us to the Super Bowl,” Hunt said, via the Kansas City Star. “And if we keep building the team the right way — and I will go back and mention again, I feel a big part of that is drafting right, [because] you have to do that every year — we’ve got a real shot of getting to the game we all want to get in.”

Hunt made clear that the expectations are high for his franchise, which hasn’t won a playoff game since Joe Montana led a victory over the Houston Oilers in 1993.

“The expectation is that we have a team that can compete for a championship every year, and to have that, you have to be building every year,” Hunt said. “I don’t want to see us get in a position where we’re mortgaging the future trying to win it all this year. We always want to be in a building mode.”

The hardest part about building a champion is finding the coach and the quarterback. Hunt thinks that job is done.

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Jay Gruden says the door is open for Santana Moss to return

Santana Moss AP

Santana Moss will turn 36 this offseason, caught just 10 passes last season and is not currently under contract to any NFL team. But that doesn’t necessarily mean his NFL career is over.

Jay Gruden, who coached Moss in Washington last year, says the team would be open to bringing Moss back for another season.

“You know what? I could always play with Santana,” Gruden said, via the Washington Post. “Santana’s a great person. He’s great in the locker room for us. He knows all the positions. I know he’s going to be in great shape, and I would not hesitate one bit to call him.”

Washington seems fairly set at receiver with DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Ryan Grant and Andre Roberts, but if the team decides it needs another player at the position — and that player is not added in the draft — Moss could return.

“We’ve talked about everybody. It’s just about when, how. We don’t want — we’ll wait until the draft to see what we have as far as numbers at every position and go from there. You know, that’s something that we know where Santana is, and he knows where we are, and something may work out down the road,” Gruden said.

No one has any illusions that a 36-year-old Moss is going to be like the 26-year-old Moss who set the franchise record for receiving yards in a season and was an All-Pro. But if the team wants to add some veteran depth, Moss may be back for one more year.

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Washington plans to host Marcus Mariota

Playoff Championship Ohio St Oregon Football AP

The Jets are sending some key decision-makers to work out Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. But the team drafting ahead of them may take Mariota before the Jets, at No. 6, get the chance.

Washington, which has the fifth overall pick, plans bring Mariota to the team’s headquarters in Ashburn, Virginia, Albert Breer of NFL Network reports. Tampa Bay and Tennessee have also scheduled visits with Mariota, so four of the teams with the top six picks will work him out.

It’s anyone’s guess where Mariota might land. The interest in him is high enough that there seems to be a good chance that he’ll go in the Top 6, but there are also mock drafts that see him sliding quite a bit further than that.

If Washington drafts him, that would be a very strong sign that the team is preparing to move on from quarterback Robert Griffin III. So far, the team hasn’t decided whether to pick up the fifth-year option on Griffin’s contract, which means he could be a free agent next March.

In addition to the teams high in the draft that may take Mariota, the Chargers have shown interest and are expected to work him out on April 15. It seems unlikely that Mariota would still be available to the Chargers with the 17th overall pick, but with only one more season left on Philip Rivers’s contract, San Diego could trade Rivers to move up and get Mariota.

Almost everyone thinks Jameis Winston will go first overall to Tampa Bay. Plenty of teams are interested in Mariota as well, but it’s still anyone’s guess which of those teams will end up with him.

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Packers may use pistol formation on a regular basis

Mike McCarthy, Aaron Rodgers AP

Last year, a late-season calf injury to Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers forced coach Mike McCarthy to rely at times on the pistol formation, given the limitations on Rodgers’ mobility.  McCarthy plans to use it more in 2015.

I like the pistol,” McCarthy said in Arizona this week at the league meetings, via Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.  “I think there’s a lot of value regardless of the injury to Aaron.  I know he likes it.  There’s a place for it year-round in your offense.”

The Packers wouldn’t use it as a tool for allowing Rodgers to run the read-option, but as a way to introduce more variables into the defensive effort to crack the code of the team’s tendencies.

“I liked it from a self-scout standpoint,” McCarthy said.  “It gives you another self-scout variable when you’re in the gun, but you also have the tailback behind you.  [There are a] lot of benefits to it.”

With a quarterback like Rodgers, it’s hard to imagine the Green Bay offense struggling in any formation.  Still, look for the pistol to be a more prevalent formation for the Packers.

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Packers defensive tackle Letroy Guion visits the Seahawks

Green Bay Packers v Buffalo Bills Getty Images

Now that the criminal charges against him are gone, Letroy Guion is looking for a way to replace the change which he hasn’t recovered yet.

And that might mean a change of address.

Via Adam, Caplan of ESPN, Guion visited the Seahawks yesterday. There’s still some interest from the Packers, but it’s interesting that his first contact was from the Northwest.

The Seahawks have been active looking for depth on the defensive line this offseason, and Guion would give them an opportunity to get younger and better in the middle.

Guion was arrested in February in Florida on gun and drug charges, but those went away as a first time offender, after he agreed to pay a $5,000 fine.

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Chad Greenway takes pay cut to stay with the Vikings

Chad Greenway, Nate Triplett AP

We noted early this month that the Vikings wanted to keep Chad Greenway, but didn’t want to pay him the $7 million he was owed on his contract.

Problem solved.

Greenway has taken a pay cut that will give Minnesota more than $3.2 million in salary cap relief, Field Yates of ESPN reports. Greenway’s new base salary is $3.4 million. He has $1 million guaranteed this year and can get $600,000 in incentives.

The Vikings drafted Greenway in the first round in 2006 and he’s spent his entire career in Minnesota, and both sides want Greenway to finish his career in Minnesota. But it’s also clear that both sides realize that at age 32 and coming off an injury-plagued season, Greenway isn’t the same player he was when he signed his previous contract. Now he’s going to be making a salary more commensurate with where he is, late in his career.

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Saturday morning one-liners

rodney-harrison Getty Images

Former Patriots S Rodney Harrison thinks the team made the right move in letting CB Darrelle Revis walk away.

Jets owner Woody Johnson sold a Manhattan apartment for $77.5 million.

Bills G.M. Doug Whaley would like to re-sign LB Brandon Spikes.

A timely text message from former Dolphins G.M. Jeff Ireland to New Orleans coach Sean Payton resulted in Ireland getting a new job.

Pittsburgh is actively trying to add more hotels in the hopes of hosting a Super Bowl.

In advance of a potential full-time move to Cleveland, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam has put his Knoxville home on the market.

Bengals owner Mike Brown supports ditching the extra point and making everybody go for two.

Ravens LB Courtney Upshaw could fill the pass-rush void created by the departure of Pernell McPhee.

Texans owner Bob McNair seems to think WR Andre Johnson has lost a step.

A new Jaguars hat was supposed to show the Jacksonville skyline under the bill, but it wasn’t Jacksonville.

Titans assistant head coach/defense Dick LeBeau briefly considered calling it a career after leaving the Steelers.

The Colts will work out Alabama S Nick Perry on Monday.

Chiefs G.M. John Dorsey said S Eric Berry is in good spirits as he continues his cancer fight.

Chargers physician Christopher Wahl has resigned, citing family reasons and the potential relocation of the franchise.

Broncos WR Cody Latimer will join Peyton Manning for workouts next week in the hopes of making a leap in 2015.

DL C.J. Wilson is happy to be staying with the Raiders.

Cowboys DT Amobi Okoye has listed a Katy, Texas mansion for $2.1 million.

Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie attended Thursday’s public viewing for Hall of Famer Chuck Bednarik.

Itsaknockout, a horse owned by Giants V.P. of player personnel Chris Mara, could end up in the Kentucky Derby.

Washington’s home field will host Argentina and El Salvador on Saturday in a soccer match.

The Bears could be looking to load up on pass rushers.

A Wisconsin man faces charges that the stole $46,000 from local businesses by failing to deliver on promises of Packers tickets.

Daktronics will install 18 high-definition LED video displays in the new Vikings stadium.

Lions DE Ziggy Ansah will benefit from the presence of DT Haloti Ngata.

Falcons coach Dan Quinn has opened the door on a possible return from QB Matt Schaub, who was traded from Atlanta eight years ago.

After spending 2014 on the practice squad, Panthers WR Stephen Hill could be ready to make a real contribution this year.

Could the Buccaneers be making a Peyton Manning-Ryan Leaf decision which knowing whether they’ll be taking Manning or Leaf?

Saints RB Mark Ingram is feeling “extremely blessed.”

The 49ers’ new stadium will be hosting Wrestlemania on Sunday night.

Free-agent DT Letroy Guion visited the Seahawks on Friday.

The workout bonus for Cardinals NT Alameda Ta’amu is tied to making weight.

A Rams scout talks about scouting.

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