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NFL morning after: Cam Newton silences his critics

Atlanta Falcons v Carolina Panthers Getty Images

If you don’t like Cam Newton after watching him on Sunday against the Falcons, it says more about you than it does about him.

It was such a pleasure to see Newton, the Panthers’ second-year quarterback, look like Cam Newton again in Sunday’s 30-20 upset of the Falcons. Newton was absolutely amazing, throwing the ball with velocity and accuracy on a 23-yard touchdown pass to Greg Olsen and having one of the best runs in the NFL all season and then doing a flip into the end zone on a 72-yard touchdown. That score gave Carolina a 23-0 lead against an Atlanta team that entered Sunday’s game with the best record in football.

The Panthers blowing out the Falcons on Sunday was a big surprise, but this was the Cam Newton I expected to see all season.

Of course, I’m the idiot who picked the Panthers to win the NFC South this season, so perhaps I was a little too optimistic about Newton. But while I may have been too quick to anoint Newton a star after his excellent rookie season, much of the football world was way too quick to jump all over Newton when he struggled at some points this season. The negative stories got really silly, with people getting on his case for everything from supposedly taking too long to get dressed after a game and holding up the team bus (which the Panthers said didn’t happen) to allegedly failing to show the proper deference to veterans at last year’s Pro Bowl (which was a bizarre story to surface 10 months later). Just as I didn’t understand the obsession so many people had with all of his off-field activities when he was winning the Heisman Trophy at Auburn, and didn’t understand the pre-draft criticisms of his allegedly fake smile, I don’t understand why so many people try so hard to paint Newton in a negative light this season.

It’s true that early in the season, Newton’s performance on the field did give his critics some ammunition. He had two interceptions in a loss to the Buccaneers, three interceptions in a loss to the Giants, an interception and a fumble in a loss to the Cowboys, two interceptions and two fumbles in a loss to the Bears and two interceptions and a fumble in a loss to the Broncos. He’s made his share of mistakes.

But the thing we have to remember is, that’s what 23-year-old quarterbacks do. Newton’s shockingly good rookie season last year and the success of Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson may have made us forget this, but playing quarterback in the NFL is hard. Really hard. And not many people can walk right out of college football and perform at a high level in the NFL. Newton played at such a high level as a rookie that maybe we should treat a step back in his second season not as an invitation to rip him mercilessly, but as a simple example of regression to the mean.

And after Sunday’s game against the Falcons, I’m not so sure that Newton has really regressed anyway. He’s now on pace to throw for 3,963 yards this season, just short of his rookie record 4,051 last year. And he’s on pace to run for 788 yards, even better than the impressive 706 he gained as a rookie. In the last four games, Newton has a total of 11 touchdowns, zero interceptions and zero fumbles.

The 4-9 Panthers have plenty of problems. Their defense is mediocre, their special teams are terrible, and their much-hyped running back trio of DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert isn’t playing well enough to merit their hype — or their contracts. But one problem they don’t have is a question mark at the quarterback position. They answered that question for years to come on the day they drafted Cam Newton.

Newton was the player who impressed me most on Sunday. Here are my other thoughts:

Rex Ryan’s decision to deactivate quarterback Greg McElroy tells me a lot about the Jets. It tells me that they think Mark Sanchez is so mentally weak that he would have been looking over his shoulder if the option of benching him for McElroy existed. That’s not a good sign. Ryan’s decision to go back to Sanchez after benching him for McElroy last week worked, in the sense that the Jets won. But it worked out for the Jets because they were playing the terrible Jaguars, not because Sanchez played well. Sanchez completed just 12 of 19 passes for 111 yards against one of the worst defenses in the NFL in Jacksonville. Ryan won’t bench Sanchez, but he should.

We still have some great running backs in this league. The NFL has become, more than ever before, a passing league. But there are still some phenomenal running backs, and two of them got off to phenomenal starts on Sunday: Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles had 103 yards in the first quarter against the Browns, and Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson had 104 yards in the first quarter against the Bears. Charles and Peterson are both coming off major reconstructive knee surgery, and yet Charles is 11 carries away from surpassing Jim Brown for the NFL record for yards-per-carry average (a record that requires a minimum of 750 career carries; Charles has 739), while Peterson is closing in on a 2,000-yard season.

The officials are using automatic replay reviews as a crutch for getting calls wrong on the field. In the second quarter of Jets-Jaguars, the Jets fumbled and Jacksonville’s Dwight Lowery recovered. Lowery was obviously down when he jumped on the ball, and yet the officials allowed him to get up and race to the end zone for a touchdown, without blowing the play dead. The reason? The officials are now letting plays go because they know scoring plays are automatically reviewed, and they figure replay will bail them out if they get it wrong. But that’s not what instant replay is intended to do: The officials should call every play as well as they can, not just abdicate their responsibility on the field and waste a bunch of time afterward when their mistakes get corrected on replay.

And sometimes even when they have a replay review the officials get the call wrong. In the second quarter of Titans-Colts, Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck threw the ball just as he was being tackled, and Tennessee’s Will Witherspoon grabbed it and raced 40 yards to the end zone. Fortunately for the Colts, a replay angle clearly showed that Luck’s knee was down before he let go of the ball, so the interception would be overturned, right? Wrong. The referee somehow looked at the replay and allowed the Titans’ touchdown to stand. If the officials are going to use replay as a crutch, and then they’re going to get the call wrong even when they have that crutch, then the NFL has a serious problem on its hands.

Seattle may be the toughest place to play in the NFL. The Seahawks improved to 6-0 at home on Sunday with their demolition of the Cardinals, and it’s a good thing for the rest of the NFC that the Seahawks are probably going to have to go on the road in the playoffs, because I wouldn’t pick anyone to beat the Seahawks in Seattle. The Seahawks are winning with a great defense, an excellent running back in Marshawn Lynch and a good young quarterback in Russell Wilson. If only the Panthers could put that kind of team around Cam Newton.

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Fourth defendant pleads guilty in Sean Taylor murder case


The fourth of five defendants charged in the 2007 murder of Sean Taylor has pleaded guilty.

Charles Wardlow entered his guilty plea in a courtroom in Miami today and was immediately sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Four down, one to go,” Taylor’s father, Pedro Taylor, told the Miami Herald after the sentencing.

Eric Rivera, who pulled the trigger on the shot that fatally wounded Taylor, was convicted last year. Rivera, who was 17 at the time he killed Taylor, was sentenced to 60 years in prison.

Jason Mitchell, whom prosecutors say organized the planned burglary of Taylor’s home, was also convicted last year and sentenced to life in prison. Venjah Hunte pleaded guilty years ago and agreed to testify against the others. He got 29 years in prison.

The fifth defendant, Timmy Brown, is still awaiting trial.

Taylor was a star player for the Miami Hurricanes and Washington’s first-round draft pick in 2004, becoming a Pro Bowl safety in his third season. Today would have been Taylor’s 32nd birthday.

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Vikings sign Mike Kafka, Caesar Rayford

Mike Kafka Getty Images

The Minnesota Vikings have signed quarterback Mike Kafka and defensive end Caesar Rayford.

Kafka’s agent, Mike McCartney, announced his signing with Minnesota while Rayford made his own announcement via his facebook page.

Both players took part in the NFL veteran combine in Arizona.

Kafka spent the 2014 season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the third-string quarterback behind Josh McCown and Mike Glennon. Kafka has not appeared in a regular season game since 2011 when he played sparingly in four games for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Rayford was traded from Indianapolis to Dallas in 2013 after a standout preseason with the Colts. Rayford appeared in seven games for the Cowboys and recorded five tackles. He spent the 2014 split between playing in the CFL and the Arena League.

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Seahawks re-sign Will Tukuafu, Jesse Williams

Will Tukuafu Getty Images

The Seattle Seahawks re-signed fullback Will Tukuafu and defensive tackle Jesse Williams on Wednesday.

Tukuafu was an unrestricted free agent following last season while Williams had been released in a salary related move in March.

Tukuafu was signed by Seattle during the season after Derrick Coleman broke a bone in his foot in pre-game warmups in St. Louis in October. He appeared in nine games for Seattle while playing both fullback and some defensive tackle as well.

Williams was a fifth-round pick by the Seahawks in 2013 but has missed the last two seasons due to knee injuries. Williams has only appeared in two preseason games in his two years with the team.

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Bengals unveil April Fool’s gag that takes shot at Browns

Bengals Getty Images

Sam Wyche probably got a kick out of this one.

On April Fool’s Day, the Cincinnati Bengals introduced a new logo and helmet. And the new logo and helmet are no different than the old logo.

Making the non-change change even more brilliant is the strong likelihood that the Bengals were taking a shot at the Browns, who recently pulled the sheet off a new helmet and logo that looked not much different than their prior helmet and logo.

So well played, Bengals. Well played.

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Dwight Lowery visited with Colts

Atlanta Falcons v New Orleans Saints Getty Images

The Colts re-signed safety Mike Adams, but they’re still in the market for more help at the position and had a veteran option in for a visit.

Albert Breer of NFL Media reports that veteran safety Dwight Lowery met with the team. Lowery played for the Falcons last year, but should be familiar to several members of the Colts organization after playing for the Jets and Jaguars during the first six years of his career.

Lowery made 15 starts while playing in every game for the Falcons last season and finished the year with 79 tackles, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and a sack. He was also a starter during his three years with Jacksonville, although injuries limited him to 12 games during the 2012 and 2013 seasons.

With Adams back in the fold, Lowery would likely compete to take over next to him with LaRon Landry and Sergio Brown both moving on from Indianapolis.

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Jamari Lattimore signs with Jets

Matthew Stafford, Jamari Lattimore AP

The Jets have added another player to their linebacking corps.

They announced the signing of former Packer Jamari Lattimore on Wednesday. Lattimore visited with the team last month.

Lattimore made the Packers as an undrafted free agent in 2011 and spent the last four years playing mostly on special teams and as a reserve in Green Bay. He did make five starts at inside linebacker last season, although the Jets will likely keep him as a depth option as long as David Harris and Demario Davis, their starters on the inside, are healthy.

Lattimore is the third Packers inside linebacker from last season to wind up with a new team this offseason. A.J. Hawk signed with the Bengals and Brad Jones landed in Philly after getting released by Green Bay.

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Bears re-sign CB Sherrick McManis

Jacksonville Jaguars v Chicago Bears Getty Images

The Bears have retained a backup defensive back and key special-teamer, reaching a one-year deal with cornerback Sherrick McManis, the club announced Wednesday.

The 27-year-old McManis appeared in 12 games as a Bears reserve in 2014, with the club crediting him with 13 special teams tackles. A Northwestern product, McManis has played in 39 games the last three seasons for Chicago after two seasons with Houston (2010-2011).

McManis’ ticket onto the roster figures to be tied to his versatility and experience. He could project as the Bears’ fourth or fifth cornerback and a core kicking game player.

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Stefen Wisniewski’s latest free agent visit with Patriots this week

Stefen Wisniewski Getty Images

The Patriots became leverage for Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain to get a better deal at home, but they won’t have to worry about that with their latest visitor.

According to Albert Breer of the NFL Network, the Patriots hosted Raiders center Stefen Wisniewski on a visit this week.

Wisniewski is coming off shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum, but has still drawn considerable interest. He’s had visits with the Seahawks, Buccaneers and Bears already, with others checking in.

The Raiders don’t need him after signing former Chiefs center Rodney Hudson to a big money deal, but plenty of others could use him and realize an upgrade (assuming he’s healthy).

While the number of visits and his injury history indicates he’s not yet ready to sign, the Patriots clearly think he could help.

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Texans sign Nate Washington

Tennessee Titans v Jacksonville Jaguars Getty Images

The Texans have added another veteran wideout to the group of players vying for playing time alongside DeAndre Hopkins in their 2015 lineup.

The team announced Wednesday that they’ve agreed to a deal with former Titans wide receiver Nate Washington. Houston has also signed ex-Jaguar Cecil Shorts this offseason while losing Andre Johnson to the Colts in their game of AFC South receiver roulette.

Washington spent six seasons with the Titans, culminating with 40 catches for 647 yards and two touchdowns while making 11 starts for the team in 2014. Those numbers are in line with his usual production in Tennessee, outside of the 74-catch, 1,023-yard season in 2011 that stands as Washington’s most productive NFL season.

John McClain of the Houston Chronicle reports that it is a one-year deal worth $1 million with $30,000 in guaranteed money, which doesn’t leave the Texans with much reason to hold onto Washington should the 31-year-old look unable to help the team once they start on-field preparations for next season.

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Ravens trade Gino Gradkowski to Broncos

Baltimore Ravens v Chicago Bears Getty Images

The Broncos have been looking to add to their options at center this offseason and it looks like they’ve settled on a player who played for head coach Gary Kubiak in Baltimore last season.

The Ravens announced Wednesday that they have traded center Gino Gradkowski and a 2016 draft pick to the Broncos in exchange for a 2016 draft pick. There are no details about which picks will be swapped or if there are any conditions based on Gradkowski’s output in Denver that can change the compensation.

Gradkowski was a fourth-round pick by Baltimore in 2012 and started every game at center for the Ravens during his second NFL season. The results were not all that good, leading Baltimore to trade for Jeremy Zuttah before the 2014 season. Gradkowski saw just a handful of snaps as a reserve in Baltimore and may not have made the team this year with John Urschel and Ryan Jensen on hand as other options in the middle of the line.

The Broncos had Manny Ramirez at center to start last season and moved Will Montgomery into the first team as they looked for a better unit as the year went on. Montgomery is a free agent, leaving Gradkowski without much in the way of experienced competition for the job at the moment.

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Kevin White will attend the draft

White AP

With Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota not attending the 2015 NFL draft, the NFL needs some of the other big-name prospects to show up for the first non-New York draft show since 1965.  In that regard, the NFL can count on former West Virginia receiver Kevin White.

White told PFT this week that he’ll be backstage at the draft when his name is called.  He also may need a tissue.  Or two. Or more.

“I think I’m going to be very emotional, a lot of tears, just because it has been a very long journey for me,” White said.  “A lot of the guys go straight out of high school to Division One. I had to go to junior college and even when I was at junior college, I had to miss a season.  It’s been a long journey.  My junior year wasn’t great.  I had a lot of nicks and bruises and we had a losing season.  It’s been a long journey for me, a lot of pressure on me to kind of do what I have to do to make it.  It’s not very common for a guy like me to make it so come draft day, I’m going to be very emotional.”

While it’s a given White will hear his name early in round one, he hasn’t been hearing from many teams.

“When I was training, a lot of teams would call but after the Combine, not too many teams called me,” White said.  “I haven’t been getting a lot of interest or phone calls or a lot of team meetings or workouts.  I’m not sure what the deal is.  Like I said, I am going to continue to train and do what I have to do and hopefully everything will pay off. . . .

“Maybe they’ve seen it all and heard it all so maybe I’m in the clear,” White added.  “Until they call or I have a set workout schedule, I’m just going to continue to do what I have to do and wherever I do go, if I have a workout or prior workout, I’ll enjoy it and try to make the most out of it.”

The full interview with Kevin White appears below.  Among other things, he identifies a couple of NFL receivers who remind White of himself (one of whom wears No. 11), and he talks about his NFL mentor (a different guy who also wears No. 11).

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Should Cowboys pursue Adrian Peterson?

Adrian Peterson AP

The Cowboys created $12.8 million in cap space by exercising their pre-existing right to restructure quarterback Tony Romo’s contract.  So what should they do with the money?

Well, Adrian Peterson’s base salary of 2015 is a mere $12.75 million.

Previously, the Cowboys weren’t regarded as a favorite to land Peterson, if the Vikings decide to trade him.  And it still may be a long shot.

But that doesn’t stop us from asking whether they should.  It also doesn’t stop you from answering.

We’ll share the results of the poll question on Wednesday’s edition of Pro Football Talk on NBCSN.  Jason Taylor and Jonathan Vilma will report from the University of Miami Pro Day workout, and we’ll take a closer look at the Rams and Giants draft plans with Paul Burmeiser, Ross Tucker, and Kevin Gilbride in Connecticut.

I’ll make my contributions from, as usual, my basement in West Virginia.  Tune in to NBCSN at 5:30 p.m. ET for the one-hour extravaganza.

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Steelers bring back defensive end Clifton Geathers for a year

Geathers Getty Images

The Steelers keep filling in the blanks on defense, hanging onto a guy they signed last year but didn’t use.

They announced that defensive end Clifton Geathers had been re-signed to a one-year contract.

The sixth-year lineman signed with them last December, but he was inactive for all four regular season games and one in the playoffs.

Geathers has bounced through a lot of stops, since he was a sixth-round pick of the Browns in 2010.

He’s also been with the Dolphins, Cowboys, Colts, Eagles and Washington as well.

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Bengals bring back Brandon Tate

Cleveland Browns v Cincinnati Bengals Getty Images

Wide receiver/kick returner Brandon Tate visited with the Chiefs this week and the prospect of losing him may have spurred the Bengals into taking action to ensure Tate’s return to the team for the 2015 season.

The Bengals announced Wednesday that they have re-signed Tate, who has spent the last four seasons in Cincinnati.

“Brandon has been a big contributor to the success of our team in qualifying for the playoffs the past four seasons,” coach Marvin Lewis said in a statement. “We are happy he has decided to remain a Bengal.”

Tate joined the Bengals as a waiver claim in 2011 after he was cut loose by the Patriots and has spent most of his time with the team as their primary kickoff and punt returner. He wasn’t particularly productive in either role last season, which led many to believe that the Bengals would be looking elsewhere for return help in 2015.

They still may do that in the draft, especially if they can find a player who also offers a potential boost to the offense as a receiver. Tate caught 17 passes for the Bengals last season, but has never made much of an impact in the passing game during his time with the team.

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Bears sign Sam Acho

Arizona Cardinals v Atlanta Falcons Getty Images

The Bears brought in a new defensive coordinator this offseason when Vic Fangio signed on to head coach John Fox’s first Chicago staff and that’s expected to mean a move toward the 3-4 base look that both men favored in previous stops.

On Wednesday, they added a player with experience in such schemes. The Bears announced they have signed former Cardinals outside linebacker Sam Acho to a one-year deal.

Acho was a fourth-round pick by Arizona in 2011 and made a splash as a rookie with seven sacks and four forced fumbles in 16 games. Acho added four more sacks while making 16 starts in his second season, but missed most of 2013 with a broken leg and contributed just one sack to the team’s pass rush.

The Bears signed Pernell McPhee to go with holdover options Lamarr Houston, Shea McClellin and Jared Allen on the edges of the defense. Acho will work his way into that mix as well and the Bears will determine how all the pieces fit once they start their offseason program.

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