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NFL morning after: Don’t overlook the Packers

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With 11 NFL games played simultaneously early Sunday afternoon, there were half a dozen big ones with playoff implications. The Vikings pounded the Texans. The Bengals snatched the final AFC playoff spot away from the Steelers. The Redskins held on to beat the Eagles. The Cowboys lost a thriller to the Saints. The Colts clinched a return to the playoffs in Kansas City. The Patriots struggled to put away the pesky Jaguars.

Those were all good games, so you can be forgiven if you overlooked the Packers’ 55-7 blowout of the Titans, a snoozer that was over a few minutes after it began. But for my money, the Packers made a stronger statement about their status as a Super Bowl contender than any of the teams in those other games I mentioned.

Yes, the Titans are a bad team, but even against the bad teams, you can be impressed with the way a good team plays. And I have to be impressed when I see Aaron Rodgers go 27-for-38 for 342 yards, with three touchdowns and no interceptions. I have to be impressed when I see three wide receivers — James Jones, Randall Cobb and Greg Jennings — all catch touchdown passes, while tight end Jermichael Finley had his best game of the season, with 70 receiving yards. I have to be impressed when running back Ryan Grant, last year’s starter who just re-signed in Green Bay three weeks ago, gained 80 yards and scored two touchdowns.

But we already knew the Packers would be fine on offense, as long as Rodgers is around. Even more importantly, I was impressed with a Green Bay defense that saw six different players — A.J. Hawk, Brad Jones, Clay Matthews, Mike Neal, Dezman Moses and Sam Shields — sack Titans quarterback Jake Locker. And I was even impressed by the special teams — which had been the biggest weakness of the Packers this season — stepping up on Sunday. Jeremy Ross had a 58-yard punt return, while Mason Crosby finally settled down and made both of his field goal attempts, although his 48-yarder bounced off the upright before falling through.

Does all that add up to the Packers being the best team in the NFL right now? I don’t know. If I had to pick a best team right now I’d probably go with Seattle, which pounded San Francisco on Sunday night for its third straight blowout win. But I’m not sure how relevant the title of “best team” is at this time of year. We often see that the universally recognized best team in the league in late December isn’t still standing in early February — as the Packers found out the hard way last year.

What I do think that is that if I were a fan of a playoff team, the Packers — who have now won four straight and nine of their last 10 — are the team I’d least want to be playing when the postseason starts. This Green Bay team is really, really good, and remember: If we have a rematch of that Seahawks-Packers “Fail Mary” replacement ref debacle in the postseason, the rematch will most likely be at Lambeau Field. A Seahawks-Packers playoff rematch would be a matchup of the two NFC teams that are playing their best football right now, and in Green Bay, I’d pick the Packers.

That 55-7 Packers score was what really made me sit up and take notice on Sunday. Here are the other items that caught my eye:

The NFL’s schedule makers dropped the ball with Sunday afternoon’s slate. Putting 11 games in the 1 o’clock kickoff slot and only three games in the 4 o’clock kickoff slot is a dumb way to divide up the afternoon games. With a bunch of good games in the early window, it was hard to follow all the action. And with three lousy games in the late window, the end of the day felt like a letdown.

Jamaal Charles tops Jim Brown. Charles didn’t just rush for 226 yards in the Chiefs’ loss to the Colts. He also broke Jim Brown’s half-century old record for the highest career yards per carry average for a running back. In the official NFL Record and Fact Book, a player needs 750 career carries to qualify for the all-time record, and among running backs, Jim Brown’s career average of 5.22 yards per carry has always been the gold standard. But on Sunday, Charles got his 750th career carry and jumped ahead of Brown in the record book. Charles now has 770 career carries for 4,483 yards, an incredible career average of 5.82 yards a carry. Any time a running back tops Jim Brown, he has done something special. To top Jim Brown’s longstanding record average by more than half a yard per carry is stunning.

Janoris Jenkins has had a remarkable rookie season. Jenkins entered this year’s NFL draft widely regarded as one of the most talented players available, but also as an off-field problem child who could turn out to be more trouble than he’s worth. Well, the Rams drafted Jenkins in the second round, and he has had some off-field trouble — Rams coach Jeff Fisher benched him for one game for missing curfew — but no one could possibly argue that Jenkins is more trouble than he’s worth anymore. Jenkins has been a fantastic cornerback on an improving St. Louis defense, and on Sunday he scored his fourth defensive touchdown of the season. Do you know how hard that is to do? Deion Sanders is the best defensive player I ever saw at making plays after turnovers, and even Deion never scored four defensive touchdowns in a season. Jenkins is one of only three players in NFL history to have three interception returns for a touchdown in his rookie season, and the other two — Lem Barney and Ronnie Lott — are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. If Jenkins can steer clear of off-field trouble, then Fisher is going to look back on drafting Jenkins as the single most important decision he made in his first year as the Rams’ coach.

Blair Walsh has had a remarkable rookie season, too. Never before in NFL history had anyone kicked more than eight 50-yard field goals in a season. Walsh, Minnesota’s rookie kicker, booted his ninth field goal of 50 yards or longer when he connected from 56 yards against the Texans on Sunday. Everyone knows the Vikings are playoff contenders because they have the NFL’s best running back in Adrian Peterson. But don’t overlook the importance of having the NFL’s best kicker in Walsh.

The Broncos are doing it at the right time. We that the six AFC playoff teams will be the Texans, Broncos, Patriots, Ravens, Colts and Bengals. But the only one of those six teams that really looks like it’s playing its best football late in the season is Denver. The Texans got pushed around by the Vikings on Sunday, the Patriots followed a loss to the 49ers last week with an ugly win over the Jaguars this week, the Ravens played well on Sunday but have struggled through most of the last month, and the Bengals and Colts barely squeaked by in their wild-card clinching wins on Sunday. I see big question marks about those five AFC playoff teams, but no major questions about the Broncos, who played great offense and great defense in pounding the Browns on Sunday. How does Peyton Manning leading the Broncos to the Super Bowl against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers sound?

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Emmanuel Sanders: Paxton Lynch has shed “deer in headlights” look

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When last we heard from Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders about the quarterback competition in Denver, he was saying all the right things about both of the candidates. He still is, but with more detail.

“I was just watching Trevor [Siemian] walk around and he’s walking around with that same confidence,” Sanders told reporters on Wednesday after a minicamp practice. “You put him in the shotgun, and he can sling it around. You see Paxton [Lynch] and you see an opportunity at hand being a young guy last year.

“Paxton was like that deer in the headlights, walking around big-eyed. Now, he’s more relaxed. It’s going to be interesting to see how Paxton takes his second year. Hopefully he gets that Memphis swag back. [We’ll] see those two guys compete and see who wins the job.”

Whoever wins the job will be slinging it around, and that makes Sanders very, very happy.

“Obviously, we’re going to throw the ball a lot more,” Sanders said. “There are a lot of underneath routes. Today we were able to throw the ball down the field. I think Bennie [Fowler] and Paxton connected on a deep ball. . . . I’m excited. I remember [Mike McCoy’s] offense from 2014. I labeled it, ‘Wide Receiver Avenue.’ It’s very pass happy and that’s everything as a receiver you could want. I’m excited.”

Broncos fans should be excited, too. The offense didn’t do enough to complement the team’s defense last year, and the Broncos didn’t make it to the playoffs. A passing game with punch could make all the difference that Denver needs.

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Giants lawyers release more Eli Manning emails to media

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Nearly two weeks ago, the lawyers representing the plaintiffs in a memorabilia fraud lawsuit against the Giants produced an email that arguably contains smoking-gun evidence of quarterback Eli Manning’s involvement in the scheme, with Eli asking the team’s equipment manager for two helmets that can “pass as game used.” On Wednesday, the lawyers representing the Giants and Manning released emails aimed at showing Eli was not involved.

But the article from ESPN.com, which quotes an email reflecting a 2012 effort by Manning to get equipment manager Jeff Skiba to secure Manning’s primary helmet and his backup helmet, contains no emails or other specific factual information that would explain why or how the 2010 “pass as game used” email doesn’t mean what it seems to mean.

Per the ESPN.com article, the lawyers claim that the plaintiffs “have no evidence of what was even produced after those emails were sent and have no direct knowledge of Manning producing anything that turned out to be fake.”

“The Manning defendants produced all of their documents concerning Mr. Manning’s equipment that he provided to Steiner Sports for the simple reason that they have nothing to hide and vehemently deny that they ever provided Steiner Sports with equipment they did not believe was game-used,” the attorneys representing the Giants and Manning wrote in an item submitted last week to the court presiding over the case.

That’s fine and it’s fair, but it sheds no light on why or how Manning sending an email in 2010 asking for two helmets that can “pass as game used” doesn’t mean what it seems to mean. If the email was taken out of context, what was the context and what does it mean within that context?

It would be ironic, to say the least, if lawyers accusing the Giants and Manning of fraud are perpetrating a fraud with an email that doesn’t mean what they claim it means. To date, however, there has been nothing from the the Giants, Manning, or their lawyers that specifically shows why or how that email has been warped, embellished, or otherwise bastardized by the plaintiffs. Producing emails that suggest there wasn’t a scam doesn’t erase the one email that suggests there was; the one email that suggests there was needs to be shown that it’s not what it seems to be in order to change the minds of those who look at that one email as proof of shenanigans.

I like Eli. I respect him and the work he does for worthy causes like the fight against the tragedy of childhood cancer. I want to believe that there’s nothing to any of this. It would be much easier if someone would provide, once and for all, an explanation of the “pass as game used” email that meshes fully and completely with the notion that Eli is being accused of something he didn’t do.

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Over-under on first-round quarterbacks is 3.5

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For the first time this year, Nevada casinos are taking bets on the NFL draft, and perhaps the most interesting bet revolves around how many quarterbacks will be selected in the first round.

Vegas sports books have set the over-under at 3.5, with the under a -200 favorite and the over a +170 underdog. In other words, the oddsmakers think three or fewer first-round quarterbacks is more likely than four or more.

North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky appears to be a sure-thing first-round pick, and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes are likely first-round picks as well. If you think those three, and only those three, are going in the first round, then you’d bet the under.

But a surprise like Cal’s Davis Webb or Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer could end up in the first round as well, perhaps pushing the first round total to four or five. And could Pittsburgh’s Nathan Peterman, Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs or Miami’s Brad Kaaya go in the first round? Probably not, but stranger things have happened.

The most likely outcome is that Trubisky, Watson and Mahomes hear their names called Thursday night, and the other quarterbacks do not. But the NFL draft is unpredictable enough that there are no safe bets.

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Marshawn Lynch will wear No. 24 in Oakland

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The Raiders officially don’t retire numbers. The number worn during two stints by cornerback Charles Woodson isn’t unofficially retired, either.

Via Michael Gehlken of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, running back Marshawn Lynch will wear No. 24 with the Raiders.

Gehlken tweets that Lynch’s mother, Delisa, told 95.7 The Game that Woodson approved of the move. Fans will, too, by the thousands. The Lynch 24 jersey immediately will become one of the highest-selling in the league.

Lynch played at Oakland Technical High School, and he played college football at Cal. His arrival helps make Oakland Raiders fans move past the reality that the Raiders will spend a year or two (or maybe three) as lame ducks in the Bay Area before moving to Las Vegas.

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Mickey Loomis: No Malcolm Butler discussions “for quite some time”

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Earlier this week, Peter King of TheMMQB.com reported that the prospect of trading for Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler and giving him a new contract had become “less attractive” to the Saints than it had been at other points this offseason.

Saints coach Sean Payton and General Manager Mickey Loomis have both been asked about Butler during media sessions this week and neither one said anything to rule out the possibility of a trade. They didn’t say anything that made it seem likely to happen either.

Payton said that nothing is “imminent” on Tuesday and Loomis said Wednesday that the topic hasn’t been on the table for the team recently.

“We haven’t really had any discussion for quite some time,” Loomis said, via the New Orleans Advocate. “Look, he’s their player. So, we’ll see how that evolves.”

King reported that the Saints don’t want to part with any of their three picks in the first two rounds in a deal for Butler. That could possibly change if things unfold differently than they expect when the draft gets rolling on Thursday night, but it certainly seems like Butler’s chances of leaving New England for New Orleans are slim.

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Jets waive five players

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Rookies will be flooding NFL rosters over the next week as teams make their draft picks and sign players who aren’t selected over seven rounds of selections in Philadelphia.

For some teams, that means they will need to clear space on their 90-man roster to make room for new arrivals. The Jets did just that on Wednesday.

The team announced that they have waived five players. Running back Brandon Burks is the only one with any regular season experience with the team. Burks spent time on their practice squad last season before being promoted to the active roster for the season finale. He ran the ball twice and lost four yards in a 30-10 victory over the Bills.

Wide receiver Darius Jennings also spent time on the Jets’ practice squad last year while defensive lineman Julien Obioha spent the year on injured reserve. Linebacker Jeff Luc and long snapper Josh Latham both signed with the team this year.

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Report: Jahri Evans signing with Packers

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The Packers have said goodbye to a pair of guards in the last year with the release of Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang joining the Lions as a free agent, but they are reportedly bolstering their options at the position with the addition of another veteran.

Ian Rapoport of NFL Media reports that the Packers are signing Jahri Evans.

Evans has played for the Saints for the last 11 seasons, although he did spend last offseason with the Seahawks before being released and returning to New Orleans. He started every game for the Saints after making that return to the roster and has 169 career starts in the NFL.

There was a recent report that members of the Packers coaching staff were unhappy about Lang’s departure, which left them with Don Barclay, Kyle Murphy and Lucas Patrick as options at right guard. With Lane Taylor coming off a year as the starter on the other side, Evans will presumably join that group and leaves the Packers with a less pressing need to add help at the position in this week’s draft.

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Browns say they’ve known the No. 1 pick for two weeks

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It’s the season of smokescreens and horsesh-t, so why not throw some more of it onto the pile?

Browns executive V.P. of football operations Sashi Brown tells Mike Silver of NFL Network that the Browns know who they’ll be taking with the No. 1 overall pick, and that they’ve known it for two weeks.

This contradicts recent reports that the Browns were still debating whether to take defensive end Myles Garrett or quarterback Mitchell Trubisky with the first pick, and it makes the effort by ESPN to trumpet Warren Sapp’s opinion that Garrett shouldn’t be the pick a waste of time, in hindsight.

This all assumes that Brown is telling the truth at a time when few do. The reason for something other than the truth is obvious; if the Browns keep the pick, they need to create the impression that everyone was and is on the same page, even if they recently weren’t.

Look for the Browns to conceal the identity of the pick for as long as possible, in the event that they trade the selection. If they do, and if no one knows who they wanted at No. 1, they can claim with a semi-straight face that they got at a lower spot the guy they would have taken at No. 1.

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Gareon Conley calls allegations “untrue, wrongful, and malicious”

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Former Ohio State cornerback Gareon Conley, who faces a rape accusation only one day before the draft, has responded with a strongly-worded statement reiterating the denial previously articulated by his lawyer.

The six-paragraph statement comes under the headline “Statement of Gareon Conley Regarding Untrue, wrongful, and Malicious Allegations.” It reads as follows, in full:

“The allegations against me concerning the night of April 8/9 that have recently been reported in multiple media outlets are completely false. I did not commit a crime and have not been charged with a crime.

“I pride myself on doing things the right way on and off the field. The things being said about me and what happened that night are not true and don’t fit my character at all. I realize that I put himself in the situation and I could have used better judgment. However, I have worked tirelessly to put myself in position to have the honor of being an NFL draft pick and these untrue allegations are putting a huge cloud over my name and the NFL Draft.

“These allegations appear to be an attempt to ruin this once-in-a-lifetime experience for me and my family. There were several witnesses including another female, who were present the entire time and have given statements that give an accurate account of what took place. I am upset but realize that I am powerless when false accusations are made and people try to convict you in the court of public opinion. It’s sad that your neighbor can get dragged through the mud based upon untrue and malicious allegations alone.

“I am completely confident that as the facts actually come out my name will be cleared.

“I was excited about participating in Thursday’s draft but I have decided it would be selfish of me to stay and be a distraction to the NFL, the other players, and their families who have worked just as hard as me to enjoy the experience so I will not be in attendance.

“I hope and look forward to the honor of being an NFL player and working to be the best representative, player, person, and teammate I can be for the team and the community I will be in.

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Dan Skuta visits with Patriots

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The Patriots had offensive lineman Brandon Fusco in for a visit on Wednesday and he isn’t the only cap casualty from this offseason that stopped in for a meeting.

Field Yates of ESPN.com reports that former Jaguars linebacker Dan Skuta was also at the team’s facility.

Skuta signed a five-year deal with the Jaguars as a free agent before the 2015 season, but was dropped after two years in a move that gave the Jaguars $4.1 million in cap space. He appeared in 26 games for the team over his two years in Jacksonville and recorded 58 tackles, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble over that span.

Skuta showed a bit more pass rushing punch while recording five sacks for the 49ers in 2014 and would give the Patriots an experienced depth option for the coming season if he does land a deal in New England.

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Bills scouts bracing for a post-draft house cleaning

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Although plenty of teams react to a bad season by dumping front-office employees in January, the more sensible approach is to wait until after the draft. That’s when the bulk of the work has ended, and it also prevents the scout from taking to a new team the fruits of the labor performed on the prior employer’s nickel.

In Buffalo, there’s a belief that the Bills will be making extensive moves in the front office when the draft concludes. Per a league source, the team’s scouts are bracing for job changes after the draft. As one scout explained it, “We are all getting fired next week.”

In response to that claim, the Bills provided to PFT the following statement: “Right now, our focus is on the preparation for this week’s draft. Like every year, evaluations of our player personnel staff take place following the draft. And this year will be no different.”

The Bills fired coach Rex Ryan late in the regular season, replacing him with Sean McDermott. Various reports and rumors have indicated that G.M. Doug Whaley could be on the way out.

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John Ross shrugs off durability concerns

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Washington wide receiver John Ross was projected to be a first-round pick throughout his final college season and his record-setting 40-yard dash at the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis didn’t do anything to lessen those expectations.

Mike Mayock of NFL Network suggested recently that concerns about Ross’ health could lead to a longer-than-expected wait to hear his name called in Philadelphia, however. Ross has dealt with several knee injuries over the course of his career and Mayock reported that teams have dropped Ross down or completely off their draft boards as a result.

During an appearance on PFT Live, Ross said that he believes such concerns are overblown.

“Well there was a lot of reports saying a lot about my knees where I had a sprained MCL, I had two torn ACLs,” Ross said. “Well all that’s kinda true. I just tore my ACL and tore my right meniscus and I played a whole season without it bothering me, without me having to sit out or come out of a game because of my knees or anything. I think the biggest thing was just my shoulder which I previously got fixed and that’s kinda what I was worried about. My knees fell great, they feel better than before I tore them so I’m not worried about that and I think with the world we live in today there’s a lot of great doctors, there’s a lot of great trainers and a lot of good technology you know. So I think it’s much different than before where I can’t get treated for something or if I’m feeling a certain way I can’t get treated for it so I’m really not worried too much about that. You know it’s football everybody is gonna get wear and tear no matter if you tore your knees before or not so I don’t think durability will be that much of an issue if I stay on top of it and take care of my body.”

Even if 31 teams have downgraded Ross, it just takes one for him to wind up as a first-round pick. We’ll know in a little more than 24 hours if that’s the case.

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Report: Davis Webb could entice teams to trade into late first round

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With the annual desperation for quarterbacks about to manifest itself again, it’s time for he annual surprise at a guy getting drafted higher than anyone anticipated.

This time, it might be Cal’s Davis Webb.

According to Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network, there’s some thought that a team might trade back into the first round to take Webb.

He cites one national scout who said Webb has “Dak-like intangibles,” and there are only a few problems with comparing him to Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott.

First, Prescott was a fourth-round pick who no one knew was anything other than an intriguing project before Tony Romo got hurt. Second, “intangibles” is a common misspelling of “Ezekiel Elliott and the best offensive line in football.”

Other than the inherent silliness of comparing players to guys they don’t share many traits with, there’s something to it. Webb has gained many fans throughout the process because of his work ethic and other coach-on-the-field qualities.

And with more teams looking for quarterbacks than quarterbacks available, he could stand to benefit.

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Trent Dilfer, Danny Kanell among ESPN layoffs

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As the bloodbath continues at ESPN, two former NFL quarterbacks have lost their jobs. Trent Dilfer and Danny Kanell both revealed that they were let go in today’s massive ESPN layoffs.

“Laid off by ESPN today. Although sad cause I loved my job, mostly filled with gratitude and appreciation for the nine years,” Dilfer wrote on Twitter.

Kanell also confirmed that he’s been let go.

“Poured my heart and soul into ESPN for last 8 years. Moved my wife and 3 kids to CT to go “all in” 5 years ago. Bummed it ended in 3 minutes,” Kanell wrote on Twitter. “But totally get it. All part of a business that is rapidly changing. Thankful for the opportunity I was given and people I got to work with!”

After spending 14 seasons as an NFL quarterback, Dilfer covered the NFL for ESPN for nine seasons. Kanell, who spent seven seasons in the NFL, has co-hosted a radio show with Ryen Russillo for the last two years. Russillo is reportedly not being laid off but is having his role at ESPN reduced.

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Marshawn Lynch confirms he’s heading to Oakland

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The last time there were reports that Marshawn Lynch was on his way to officially joining the Raiders, Lynch threw cold water on them and said that he’d let us know when “s–t gets REAL.”

Wednesday morning brought more reports that the deal was done and this round included trade terms between the Seahawks and Raiders. Lynch, who was in Haiti this week, didn’t offer any immediate updates as to the veracity of those reports, but that ended with a tweet later in the day.

Lynch wrote “It’s time” on a tweet that also included a screenshot of a message that thanked Seahawks fans and confirmed that he was going to play in his hometown in his inimitable style.

“Yes Lawd 12th man I’m thankful but s—t just got REAL I had hella fun in Seattle … But I’m really from Oakland doe like really really really from Oakland doe … town bizzness breath on me.”

The Seahawks and Raiders will exchange third-day draft picks in 2018 and Lynch will reportedly have a base salary of $3 million with the Raiders with incentives that can push the deal as high as $8.5 million. Omar Ruiz of NFL Media reports that Lynch is at the team’s facility and took a physical earlier on Wednesday so a team announcement, which is unlikely to include the phrase “town bizzness breath on me,” may be coming soon.

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