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Falcons can clinch NFC’s top seed next week, with help

New Orleans Saints v Atlanta Falcons Getty Images

The Falcons clinched the NFC South title from their collective couch yesterday, when the Broncos beat the Buccaneers.

And amazingly, the 11-1 Falcons could wrap up the top seed in the NFC playoffs next week, with a win and some help.

According to Pat Yasinskas of ESPN.com, the Falcons could lock up the first seed next week with a win at the Panthers, plus a 49ers loss, and a loss or a tie each from the Packers, Giants and Bears. They can also clinch a first round bye next week with a slightly less restrictive set of occurrences.

The bigger question is whether that’s good for them or not.

All season, the Falcons have known that nothing that happens in the regular season will define them. Cruising down the stretch isn’t the best way to go into the postseason, and having nothing to play for for a month doesn’t force them to stay sharp.

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Richard Sherman takes a page out of the “fake news” playbook

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 14:  Richard Sherman #25 and Thomas Rawls #34 of the Seattle Seahawks run out on the field prior the game against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome on January 14, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images) Getty Images

I personally like Richard Sherman, and I greatly respect his football abilities. But, man, from time to time he says some questionable things.

Our own night-shift supervisor Curtis Crabtree, while performing his day-job duties for KJR radio in Seattle, has put together an article picking apart Sherman’s effort to suggest that his controversial threat to “ruin the career” of a Seattle reporter is the latest example of the “fake news” phenomenon.

Nobody ever knew what I said,” Sherman said in an interview with ESPN, via Crabtree. “Once again, ‘sources say.’ Who was there? Did anybody see it? Who was there? Who said it?”

Asked directly by Cari Champion of ESPN whether the quote was not correct, Sherman said, “Nobody knows. Nobody knows what was correct. All you hear is, ‘He said, she said.'”

In this case, there was no misunderstanding. Sherman said what he said, and people heard it. But, possibly taking his cue from the current political climate at the highest reaches of American government, Sherman has opted to dismiss anything that casts him in a negative light as not real.

“It gets to the point where nobody needs the truth anymore,” Sherman said. “Nobody cares to know what the truth is. You can just fabricate a story and go with it and then I got to defend a fabricated story. After a while you just get irritated of defending stories that don’t exist. So it’s like, why would I talk to you when I can write my own story?”

The man who plays football in Washington state had gone to the next level in his homage to certain recent residents of Washington, D.C. Sherman isn’t simply saying that other people are saying false things about him; he’s saying that words he actually uttered weren’t said.

And so a bizarre story that everyone presumed to be over has now sprouted a new chapter that somehow is even more bizarre than any of those already written. Maybe Sherman’s next move will be to claim that the reporter actually threatened to ruin Sherman’s career.

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Report: Chiefs “working” to make Eric Berry the NFL’s highest-paid safety

Seattle Seahawks v Kansas City Chiefs Getty Images

The Chiefs are trying to finalize a deal with safety Eric Berry that would make Berry the NFL’s highest-paid safety, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported Monday.

Getting that deal done soon would not only keep Berry off the market but would give the Chiefs the chance to use their franchise tag on nose tackle Dontari Poe instead of using it on Berry for a second straight year. The deadline to place the franchise tag on players in Wednesday, March 1.

With that deadline looming and the Chiefs wanting to keep both players, the report said the sides are “working hard” at nailing down the details on a new contract for Berry.

Both Berry and Poe have played their entire careers with the Chiefs and both rank in the top 25 of PFT’s Hot 100 Free Agents list. The league year and free agent period open next week, on March 9.

Berry, 28, is a five-time Pro Bowler who beat Hodgkin’s lymphoma after being diagnosed in 2014 and has played some of his best football over the last two seasons. Poe, 26, could be headed for free agency for the first time. He was a first-round pick in 2012, is a two-time Pro Bowler and has only missed two games in his five-year career.

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Big contracts shouldn’t be a surprise

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Media and fans will marvel at some of the contracts signed by NFL players in the coming days and weeks, and inevitably there will be complaints that the players aren’t “worth” the money they’ll be getting.

First, anyone is “worth” whatever someone else will pay them.

Second, with the salary cap spiking for four straight years, individual contracts should be spiking, too.

Last year, one of the common offseason refrains at PFT was that the market for franchise quarterbacks hadn’t increased at the same rate as the salary cap. With total growth in the salary cap of at least 37.6 percent since 2013, the top of the quarterback market should have increased by that much, too.

In 2013, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers held the top spot with $22 million per year. If the quarterback market had grown as much as the cap has grown, someone already would be making more than $30 million per year. Instead, no one is even at $25 million.

The same dynamic applies at other positions. Retired Lions receiver Calvin Johnson, whose big-money deal was signed in 2012, hadn’t had his contract eclipsed until today, when Steelers receiver Antonio Brown signed an extension.

Although the total dollars are (mostly) being spent, the top of the market hasn’t been growing. The correction could be coming this year. When it happens, don’t wag a finger and call the players undeserving. Instead, point that finger at the owners and say, “It’s about time.”

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Antonio Brown, Steelers agree on new deal

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 25:  Antonio Brown #84 of the Pittsburgh Steelers warms up before the game against the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field on December 25, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images) Getty Images

Word early on Monday was that the Steelers and wide receiver Antonio Brown were making good progress toward an agreement on a new contract.

They’ve found that agreement. Brown has shared a picture on Twitter captioned “Steelers for life” with what looks like a contract in agent Drew Rosenhaus’ hand. The Steelers announced that it is a five-year deal.

PFT has learned, via a league source, that it is a four-year extension to Brown’s current deal that is worth up to $68 million. He’ll make $17 million a year over those four years and $18.5 million a year over the first three years, which is more than Calvin Johnson received in his last deal with the Lions and more than any other wideout in the league is making on their current deals.

Brown’s spot at the top of the list of best-paid receivers isn’t surprising given how much he has produced for the Steelers. He’s caught at least 106 passes for 1,284 yards in each of the last four seasons while catching 43 touchdowns.

The Steelers have other irons in the fire — they used the franchise tag on running back Le’Veon Bell Monday — but that didn’t stop them from locking up their best receiver well ahead of the end of his current contract.

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Exclusive tag for Le’Veon Bell will cost the same as non-exclusive tag

KANSAS CITY, MP - JANUARY 15: Running back Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers is tackled by inside linebacker Ramik Wilson #53 of the Kansas City Chiefs during the second quarter in the AFC Divisional Playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium on January 15, 2017 in Kansas City, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images) Getty Images

The official announcement doesn’t specify whether the franchise tag that the Steelers placed on running back Le’Veon Bell is exclusive or non-exclusive. PFT has confirmed that it’s the exclusive tag.

As explained last week, the exclusive version of the tag will cost no more than the non-exclusive version, given the formula used for determining the amounts. The non-exclusive tag is derived from a five-year average salary-cap percentage consumed by the non-exclusive tag at the position; the exclusive tag will be driven by the average of the five highest cap numbers at the position for 2017.

Even with Adrian Peterson’s $18 million cap number for 2017, the average of the five top running back salary cap number falls far below the 7.257-percent chunk of the total cap (between $166 million to $169 million) that applies to the running back position.

So if it’s going to cost more than $12 million with or without exclusivity, why not remove from the equation the possibility of Bell meeting with other teams? As it stands, he remains bound to the Steelers, either at a one-year contract in excess of $12 million or a long-term deal, if one can be negotiated by July 15.

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Giants tag JPP, two years after tagging him the first time

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - NOVEMBER 20:  Jason Pierre-Paul #90 of the New York Giants celebrates after a sack against the Chicago Bears during the second half at MetLife Stadium on November 20, 2016 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) Getty Images

Two years ago, the Giants applied the franchise tag to defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. They’ve done it again.

Per a league source, the Giants have slapped the franchise tag onto a player who recovered from a fireworks mishaps that disfigured his right hand to have a very strong 2016 season.

It’s the non-exclusive tag, and it entitles Pierre-Paul to a one-year tender worth 10.14 percent of the total salary cap. At $166 million (the number isn’t finalized yet), that would be $16.83 million.

Last year, Pierre-Paul signed a one-year deal to stay with the Giants. He has said he now wants a multi-year deal. He’ll have until July 15 to negotiate one with the Giants. In theory, he also could negotiate one with another team — if that team is willing to give up two first-round picks, in the event the Giants choose not to match it.

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Chiefs, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif finalizing five-year extension

GLENDALE, AZ - AUGUST 15:  Tackle Laurent Duvernay-Tardif #76 of the Kansas City Chiefs before the pre-season NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals at the University of Phoenix Stadium on August 15, 2015 in Glendale, Arizona. The Chiefs defeated the Cardinals 34-19.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) Getty Images

Chiefs guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif has gone from a little-known sixth-round pick out of Montreal’s McGill University in 2014 to a starter in Kansas City the last two years. And now he’s about to get paid like not just a starter, but one of the best in the league.

Duvernay-Tardif and the Chiefs are finalizing a five-year contract, Ian Rapoport of NFL Media reports. The value of the extension is reportedly $41.25 million, but there’s no word on the structure of the contract or how much of that is guaranteed.

The 26-year-old Duvernay-Tardif is currently slated to make a $690,000 base salary in 2017.

Duvernay-Tardif studies medicine in the offseasons and plans to become a doctor when he retires. This deal should ensure that he won’t be hurting for money when it’s time for him to go into medicine.

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49ers tender a pair of exclusive rights free agents

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 04:   Mike Purcell #64 and  Joe Staley #74 of the San Francisco 49ers walks toward the locker room at the conclusion of the game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on December 4, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The Chicago Bears defeat the San Francisco 49ers 26-6.  (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) Getty Images

The 49ers signed a pair of outside free agents in recent days with cornerback K’Waun Williams and defensive tackle Earl Mitchell representing a bigger dip into the market than they took all of last season.

We’ll see if new General Manager John Lynch keeps that up when the new league year opens on March 9, but the 49ers have taken a brief break from bringing in new faces to make sure they hold onto a couple of players from the 2016 roster. The 49ers announced on Monday that they have extended exclusive rights free agent tenders to linebacker Carl Bradford and nose tackle Mike Purcell.

Exclusive rights free agents are ineligible to jump to another team once their current team extends a tender, so Bradford and Purcell will both be in the mix for roster spots unless they opt to stop playing altogether.

Bradford was a fourth-round pick by the Packers in 2014 and played two games with the Niners after being claimed on waivers last year. Purcell first signed with the 49ers as an undrafted rookie in 2013 and made his regular season debut the next year. He had 26 tackles and a forced fumble in 15 games last season.

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Le’Veon Bell gets franchise tag from Steelers

KANSAS CITY, MP - JANUARY 15: Running back Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers walks off of the field after the game against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Divisional Playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium on January 15, 2017 in Kansas City, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Steelers weren’t expected to let running back Le’Veon Bell hit the open market when the new league year gets underway next month so it comes as no surprise that he’s the latest player to receive a franchise tag.

The Steelers have placed a franchise tag on Bell and, per multiple reports, it is the exclusive variety. That gives them until July 15 to work out a long-term contract before Bell would be left with the choice of playing out the year on the franchise tender, working out a different one-year deal or sitting out.

The franchise tender for Bell should come in at somewhere over $12.3 million. Because the Steelers went the exclusive route, Bell cannot be signed by another team even if they were willing to pony up the required two first-round picks as compensation.

Bell’s always been productive when he’s been on the field for the Steelers since they made him the 48th pick of the 2013 draft. Injuries and suspensions have kept him off the field at times over that span and those absences could create some concern on the team’s end about an extended deal.

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Report: Dwight Freeney wants to play in 2017

HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 02:  Dwight Freeney #93 of the Atlanta Falcons reacts to a question during the Super Bowl LI press conference on February 2, 2017 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images) Getty Images

Before Super Bowl LI, defensive end Dwight Freeney said that he would take some time after the Falcons played the Patriots before deciding if he wanted to play another NFL season.

Freeney said he wanted “to take all that emotion out and make that decision when it comes” rather than doing something fueled by the result of the game. It’s been a few weeks since that game ended with the Patriots storming back for the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history and it seems that’s been enough time for Freeney to make up his mind.

Tom Pelissero of USA Today reports that Freeney has decided that he wants to play a 16th season. His contract with the Falcons came to an end after the Super Bowl, so Freeney is set to become a free agent on March 9.

Freeney had three sacks in 15 games for the Falcons in the regular season and had another one in the Super Bowl.

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Chiefs owner backs Alex Smith as his starting quarterback

ORCHARD PARK, NY - NOVEMBER 09:  Head Coach Andy Reid of the Kansas City Chiefs and Kansas City Chiefs owner Clark Hunt during the first half at Ralph Wilson Stadium on November 9, 2014 in Orchard Park, New York.  (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Chiefs have come up as a possible destination for quarterback Tony Romo, once he’s a former Cowboy.

But Chiefs owner Clark Hunt seems to be just fine sticking with Alex Smith under center.

According to Terez Paylor of the Kansas City Star, Hunt said he was on board with coach Andy Reid, and that they were comfortable moving forward with Smith.

“I would just reiterate what Andy has said several times throughout the offseason, which is he’s very happy with Alex and Alex is going to be our starter going into 2017,” Hunt said.

There’s a growing perception that the Chiefs have gone as far as Smith can take them, much in the way the 49ers had when they replaced him with Colin Kaepernick (which seems like forever ago).

At the same time, plenty can go wrong with any plan at quarterback if it centers on Romo, as the Cowboys found out two years ago before Dak Prescott bailed them out last season.

Smith has some clear faults, but he’s also efficient and smart and the Chiefs have gone 41-20 with him as the starter the last four years. While it’s tempting to dream of an upgrade, someone who is more of a threat downfield, the Chiefs apparently aren’t prepared to do anything rash to replace him.

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Browns still don’t plan to tag Terrelle Pryor

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 24:  Terrelle Pryor #11 of the Cleveland Browns warms up before the game against the San Diego Chargers at FirstEnergy Stadium on December 24, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) Getty Images

The cap-rich, talent-starved Browns apparently will assume the risk that receiver Terrelle Pryor will leave via free agency.

Via Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the team hasn’t changed its position that the franchise tag won’t be applied to Pryor. This year, the receiver version of the tag will consume 9.39 percent of the total salary cap. At the low end of the currently-expected range of $166 million, that’s $15.58 million.

Pryor, drafted six years ago as a quarterback, converted to receiver after all of his options at his initial position dried up. He caught 77 passes for 1,007 yards and four touchdowns in his first full season as a receiver.

The Browns have until 4:00 p.m. ET to decide whether to tag Pryor. The transition tag also is available, at 7.939 percent of the cap ($13.1 million); it would give the Browns a right to match but no compensation if he leaves.

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Colts add a 2016 49ers draft pick to offensive line mix

OXFORD, MS - OCTOBER 4: Fahn Cooper #77 of the Ole Miss Rebels blocks against Ryan Anderson #7 of the Alabama Crimson Tide on October 4, 2014 at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Mississippi.  (Photo by Joe Murphy/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Colts are expected to continue looking for ways to improve their offensive line play this offseason and they’ve added another player to the mix ahead of the start of free agency.

The team announced Monday that they have signed tackle Fahn Cooper to their 90-man roster.

Cooper was a fifth-round pick by the 49ers last season and failed to make the team out of the summer. He was re-signed to the practice squad and remained there all season, but did not sign on again with the 49ers following the end of the regular season.

Cooper started 26 games at Ole Miss. Most of his time was at right tackle, but he saw time on the left side when Dolphins first-round pick Laremy Tunsil was serving a suspension.

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Panthers put franchise tag on defensive tackle Kawann Short

CHARLOTTE, NC - OCTOBER 25:  Kawann Short #99 of the Carolina Panthers celebrates a sack against the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1st half during their game at Bank of America Stadium on October 25, 2015 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Panthers continued the sudden trend of #asexpected applications of the franchise tag, putting it on defensive tackle Kawann Short.

They have until July 15 to do a long-term deal with Short, but they’ve been working on that for over a year.

The difference in opinion on his value could make it an interesting negotiation.

Short had 6.0 sacks last season, still good but well off the 11.0 he had in 2015, when it became apparent he was going to get very rich.

Now we just have to see if things proceed amicably, unlike last year when they yanked the tag from cornerback Josh Norman, allowing him to go to Washington.

It also helps keep their line together, after they’ve re-signed defensive ends Mario Addison and Wes Horton to new deals.

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The annual Hot 100 Free Agents list has been posted

KANSAS CITY, MP - JANUARY 15:  Running back Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers tosses the ball forward after gaining a first down against the Kansas City Chiefs during the first quarter in the AFC Divisional Playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium on January 15, 2017 in Kansas City, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images) Getty Images

Before the spending begins, let the arguing begin.

The annual PFT Hot 100 Free Agents list has been posted. We know most of the top players — starting with No. 1 Le’Veon Bell — won’t be allowed to come near the open market, but we still ranked them among players at all positions who stand to get paid, handsomely, sometime in the next couple of weeks.

The list includes all sorts of players, young and old, who figure to make a bunch of money if they actually hit the open market next week. Because a lot can and will change between now and then and then certainly throughout March when the market actually opens, we’ll update the list as teams pass on contract options and roster bonuses and release other players to make way for their new and expensive acquisitions.

The status of each player will be noted as he receives a tag, signs an offer sheet or signs a contract, and the ranking order can change as more players become free when the movement begins. It wouldn’t be a terrible idea to bookmark the list for reference or even for argument’s sake.

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