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NFL morning after: Don’t overlook the Packers

Tennessee Titans v Green Bay Packers Getty Images

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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Troy Aikman remains concerned about Tony Romo’s back

aikmanromo AP

When Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo suffered a back injury at the end of the 2013 season, former Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman said Romo’s bad back should concern the Cowboys. From all indications, Romo has made good progress in recovery. But Aikman remains concerned anyway.

Aikman told the Cowboys’ website that he doesn’t think a quarterback really knows if his back is strong enough to withstand the pounding of playing in the NFL until the season starts. Aikman knows that first hand, having had back surgery in his own NFL career.

“I came back in a relatively short period of time because of when I had my surgery, so he’s at least afforded more time to get ready,” Aikman said. “But having said that, two back surgeries in less than a year at his age, I would be a bit concerned. I’m hopeful that he’s able to come back – everybody is. This team won’t be the same if he’s not able to. I anticipate that he will come back. But to say that, ‘Hey, he’s ahead of schedule and everything’s going fine,’ I’m not sure how you can really measure that here in April.”

Aikman retired when he was 34, and Romo will turn 34 on Monday. Aikman has said his back injury played a significant role in forcing him to retire. The Cowboys still hope Romo has several good years left in him. But it’s easy to see why Aikman wonders just how healthy a 34-year-old quarterback coming off two back surgeries will be.

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Taylor Mays working way back from shoulder dislocation and labrum tear

Joique Bell, Taylor Mays AP

The Cincinnati Bengals lost safety Taylor Mays for the season when he suffered a torn labrum and dislocated shoulder last October.

Mays dislocated his shoulder when attempting to tackle Bilal Powell in a game against the New York Jets. According to Tom Pelissero of USA Today, the shoulder dislocation tore Mays’ labrum in two places and it took 90 minutes to get put the shoulder back into its socket.

Mays had begun to find a role in the Cincinnati defense as a linebacker in the Bengals’ nickel package before the injury. Instead, his season ended and set forth a lengthy rehabilitation process.

“The hardest part was I tore it where the biceps tendon attaches, so in my rehab process, they were like, ‘No, you can’t do bicep curls,’” Mays said. “As a guy with meathead tendencies, not being able to do bicep curls – that was rough.”

The Bengals re-signed Mays to a one-year deal in March. Mays says he expects to participate in the team’s offseason program which kicks off next week. He estimates the shoulder is close to 90 percent healed, which should put on pace to be back to full strength by the start of training camp in July.

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49ers turmoil could help get Harbaugh what he wants

Harbaugh Getty Images

The 49ers’ offseason started in rocky fashion, as the tension between coach Jim Harbaugh and G.M. Trent Baalke bubbled over.  The drama became obvious even before the season ended, via the reporting of Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News.

As Harbaugh moves toward the fourth of five years of his contract with the team, he hasn’t received a new deal.  Recent turmoil unrelated to the coach but directly arising from several of the team’s players could help Harbaugh get what he wants, for several reasons.

First, the 49ers desperately need some good news right now.  Securing Harbaugh for the long haul would accomplish that.

Of course, that could be bad news for the folks in the front office who reportedly have a hard time getting along with the ultra-competitive Harbaugh.  To the extent that reports of friction between Harbaugh and G.M. Trent Baalke are true, giving Harbaugh the long-term deal he wants could also mean replacing Baalke.

Second, someone bears the blame for draft picks that have been devoted to guys who have gotten into trouble or who have ended up being busts.  Each of the first three men picked by Baalke — linebacker Aldon Smith, quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and cornerback Chris Culliver — have found themselves in awkward situations, to say the least.  (Kaepernick has not yet been arrested or charged for whatever it was that happened earlier this month in Miami, and he may never be.)

The fifth-round pick in 2011, guard Daniel Kilgore, also has an arrest this year, for public intoxication.  (This week, the charge was dismissed.)

The first two players selected in 2012 haven’t done anything wrong.  But they also haven’t done anything good.  First-round receiver A.J. Jenkins is long gone, and second-round running back LaMichael James has landed on the trading block.

It’s not publicly known whether Harbaugh supported or opposed any of those selections.  He could bear some of the same blame as Baalke.  Harbaugh likewise could be basking in vindication as to one or more of the players that Baalke wanted but Harbaugh perhaps didn’t.

Regardless, Baalke had the final say, which means that Baalke gets the bulk of the blame.  Which makes Harbaugh look better in comparison and could nudge the organization between giving him the money he wants and hiring a G.M. who will work in conjunction with Harbaugh to find players who will produce at a high level and stay out of trouble.

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Report: Arbitrator rules DeSean Jackson owes Drew Rosenhaus over $500,000

DeSean Jackson, Corey Webster AP

New Redskins receiver DeSean Jackson will have to allocate some of the money from his new contract with Washington to pay off a debt to his former representation.

According to Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer, an arbitrator ruled Tuesday that Jackson owes $516,415 in back loans and fees to agent Drew Rosenhaus.

Rosenhaus filed the grievance against Jackson with the NFL Players Association last June after he was dropped by Jackson. The grievance claimed Jackson owed Rosenhaus more than $700,000 in loans and fees from his tenure representing Jackson.

Jackson intends on appealing the decision by the arbitrator. He is now represented by Joel Segal, who negotiated Jackson’s new contract in Washington.

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Jaguars re-sign WR Mike Brown

San Diego Chargers v Jacksonville Jaguars Getty Images

The Jaguars have re-signed wide receiver Mike Brown, an exclusive rights free agent, according to the NFL’s Wednesday transactions.

Brown was third on the Jaguars in receiving yards (446) and fourth in catches (32) in 2013. He also hauled in two touchdown passes. Brown appeared in 11 games, starting six.

A third-year pro, Brown (5-10, 200) played quarterback at Liberty. The Jaguars signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2012 and moved him to wide receiver. The 24-year-old Brown was added to the Jaguars’ roster late in his rookie season, and in his second NFL campaign, he was Jacksonville’s fourth-most targeted player on offense, with 56 passes thrown his way.

Brown is one of 12 wide receivers on the Jaguars’ roster — a count that does not include Justin Blackmon, who will have to be reinstated after his November 2013 suspension.

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Judge Brody has not rejected concussion settlement a second time, yet

Gavel AP

A document that appeared on the federal court docket in Philadelphia on Wednesday but that was misunderstood by the media resulted in a flurry of headlines proclaiming that Judge Anita Brody has rejected the proposed settlement in the concussion lawsuit a second time.

She hasn’t.  (Yet.)

The document, we’re told, merely reflected internal court housekeeping and not a new decision that an attempt to change Judge Brody’s mind has failed.

Of course, that could still happen.  Judge Brody could decide that the second attempt by the lawyers to persuade her to give preliminary approval to the settlement fails to alleviate her concerns.  It hasn’t happened yet, however.

Judge Brody rejected the settlement primarily due to her concern that the $675 million compensation fund created by the $765 million settlement won’t last long enough to satisfy all potential claims.  The easy solution would be for the NFL to guarantee that, if the money runs out at some point in the future, the NFL will replenish the pot as needed.  If, after all, the NFL has a high degree of confidence that the funds will last, the NFL should have no qualms about satisfying any deficit.

Meanwhile, the plaintiffs continue to wait.  It’s been nearly eight months since the deal was negotiated, and the settlement process likely will consume another eight months, or more.  They agreed to settle the case in part because it meant that much-needed funds would be made available to them sooner rather than later.

Sooner quickly has become later.  And it likely will be a lot later until the settlement is resolved.

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Report: 49ers “shopping” LaMichael James

San Francisco 49ers v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Getty Images

The 49ers are reportedly willing to deal a recent second-round pick.

According to Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee, the 49ers are “shopping” reserve tailback LaMichael James.

An Oregon product, the 24-year-old James has attempted just 39 regular season rushes since being drafted in 2012. He returned 23 punts and 12 kickoffs for the Niners last season.

According to the Bee, James has “made it clear” he wants more work at running back; it’s unclear whether that has prompted the 49ers to be open to moving in him in trade. Barrows also suggests James could conceivably be used in a package if the Niners were to move up in the draft.

The 49ers have James, Kendall Hunter, Marcus Lattimore and Jewel Hampton in reserve behind starting tailback Frank Gore. Were James to be moved, the 49ers could look to add another back. As Barrows notes, the 49ers have met with UCF tailback Storm Johnson and will meet with Towson running back Terrance West.

Including James, only three of the Niners’ seven 2012 draft picks remain with the club, with first-round pick A.J. Jenkins shipped to Kansas City after just one season.

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Dollars suggest Chris Johnson won’t be a role player

CJ AP

On the surface, it’s easy to assume that Chris Ivory and Chris Johnson will share the load in the New York backfield.  The numbers suggest strongly that Johnson will be the lead dog.

Johnson will earn $4 million in 2014.  Ivory will earn $1 million.  While that doesn’t mean Johnson will have four times the touches as Ivory, it indicates that Johnson has greater value — and in turn that he’ll have the greater role.

Also in the mix is Bilal Powell, who has a base salary of $1.4 million this year.  Mike Goodson remains on the books for another $1 million, but he’s likely the odd man out given the arrival of Johnson.

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Sidney Rice returns to the Seahawks

Sidney Rice AP

It’s been a good week for receiver Sidney Rice.

On Monday, he received clearance to return to football activities from Dr. James Andrews.  On Wednesday, he agreed to terms to return to the team that cut him earlier this year, the Seattle Seahawks.

Rice broke the news himself on Twitter.  Per a league source, it’s a one-year deal.  We’re told the deal pays more than the veteran minimum, but the specific amount isn’t currently known.

The move comes less than three years after Rice signed a long-term deal that was due to pay him $8.5 million this year.  He’ll undoubtedly make much less than that.

The Seahawks had remained interested in bringing back Rice.  News of a visit to the Jets may have been the nudge that the Seahawks needed to close the deal.

The Giants, Saints, and Panthers all had some interest in Rice.

He appeared in 33 games during three seasons with the Seahawks, with 748 receiving yards in 2012.  Last year, he tore an ACL in late October.

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Dwayne Bowe pays fine, resolves case stemming from pot arrest

Dwayne Bowe AP

Chiefs receiver Dwayne Bowe, who was arrested in November for marijuana possession, has paid a fine and pleaded guilty to amended charges to resolve the matter.

Bowe pleaded guilty today to defective equipment and littering and paid $610 in fines.

“Like others charged with speeding and possessing marijuana for the first time, Mr. Bowe pleaded guilty to amended charges,” city prosecutor Amy Ashefford told the Kansas City Star, adding that Bowe was treated no better or worse than anyone facing similar charges.

Bowe said in January that he thought he was racially profiled, but last week he released a statement saying the police had treated him fairly.

Now the question is how the league office will treat Bowe. A marijuana offense typically results in a one-game suspension, although littering and “defective equipment” may not be enough to get Bowe in any type of trouble. Still, the fact that this case started with a marijuana arrest could result in Bowe being placed in the league’s substance-abuse program.

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RB-needy teams left to focus on the draft

Carlos Hyde

There has been much said about running backs having a tough go of it in free agency, and in case we had forgotten, we were reminded with Chris Johnson taking more than a week to find a new team.

Johnson, who was PFT’s No. 34-ranked free agent, signed a two-year, $8 million deal with the Jets on Wednesday. And this was a good deal, given the market this offseason, as colleague Mike Florio pointed out.

In all, it took Johnson nine days from his official release from Tennessee to land a new gig. Contrast this with DeSean Jackson, who had a deal with Washington in three days. And Darrelle Revis had an agreement with New England in but a few hours after his departure from Tampa Bay.

With Johnson signed, there are no starter-caliber tailbacks left in free agency. There are some decent complementary players available, with Michael Bush (ex-Bears) and Ronnie Brown (Chargers) two of the better options left, per Rotoworld’s rankings. According to Pro Football Focus, Brown earned a positive grade as a pass blocker in 2013, but he played just 157 snaps, and he had a negative grade as a rusher, as did Bush, who’s gained less than four yards per carry in each of the last three seasons.

In short, teams needing a running back are probably left to add one in the draft. The Titans, Browns, Jaguars, Bears and Vikings are among the clubs who could use at least one more tailback. However, of these teams, only the Titans may need a starter. The Browns (Ben Tate) and Jaguars (Toby Gerhart) signed young, starter-caliber veterans in free agency, while the Bears (Matt Forte) and Vikings (Adrian Peterson) just need understudies for their established lead backs.

The Bengals, Bills, Broncos, Buccaneers, Cardinals, Chiefs, Colts, Cowboys, Falcons, Giants, Patriots, Rams, Ravens, Redskins, Steelers and Texans are other teams who seem logical contenders to bring in another back.

The question is, who takes the first tailback in May, and in which round? In his most recent mock draft, Rotoworld’s Josh Norris has no backs going in Round One. Also, NFL.com’s Nolan Nawrocki has just one back – Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde — listed as a potential first-round selection.

In an offseason that won’t be remembered as an especially glorious one for the running backs of the world, the draft looms as the final act. Not getting any stage time on the draft’s first night would be another low point.

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Busy day for Jets, with Sidney Rice visiting

Sidney Rice Pic Getty Images

On the same day the Jets added a home-run threat to their running game, they’re looking for more help for their passing attack.

According to Adam Schefter of ESPN, former Seahawks wideout Sidney Rice is visiting with the Jets today.

The Jets will want a look at his surgically repaired knee, as he was just cleared by Dr. James Andrews following his October ACL tear.

When well, Rice has been a good downfield threat (averaging better than 15.0 yards per catch each of the last five seasons).

But staying well has been an issue, as he’s played 16 games in a season twice in seven NFL seasons.

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Police say Sharper’s DNA was found on clothing of one of his accusers

Darren Sharper, Blair Berk, Leonard Levine AP

A Tempe, Arizona police department testified Wednesday that ex-NFL safety Darren Sharper’s DNA was found on the clothing of one of the two women accusing him of drugging and sexually assaulting them.

The Associated Press reports that the testimony came at a hearing in Tempe on Wednesday that saw Sharper’s lawyers challenge the evidence authorities are using as a basis to keep Sharper in jail without bail. Sharper is accused of drugging three women and sexually assaulting two of them last November.

Detective Kevin Mace testified that Sharper’s DNA was found on the clothing of one of the women he’s accused of assaulting, but none was found on the other woman. Mace also testified that Sharper had a prescription for the sedative zolpidem and that a police search of the apartment of one of the women turned up a shot glass with zolpidem residue. 

Sharper also faces charges along similar lines in California and Louisiana with the possibility of more to follow in other states. He was granted bail in California, but will remain in jail in Arizona pending a decision on his bail. The hearing will continue on Thursday.

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Reports: Victor Hampton arrested after altercation with his sister

victorhampton

Former South Carolina cornerback Victor Hampton, a prospect in next month’s NFL draft, was in the news this week when it was reported that he was wanted for questioning in connection with an attack on a man in a New York City nightclub. But that’s not the only incident that has Hampton in the news.

Media outlets in South Carolina are reporting that Hampton has also been arrested and is facing a charge of disorderly conduct after an altercation with his sister.

Local TV station WLTX is reporting that the incident happened at a home in Columbia, South Carolina, on April 6. According to the report, Hampton and his sister, Victoria, got into an argument, police were called, and the two continued to fight even as police tried to separate them. Eventually, both Victor and Victoria were arrested.

Local TV station WIS obtained the police report, in which the arresting officer says the brother and sister wouldn’t stop fighting as both police and their mother attempted to break them up.

“I asked both subjects to stop yelling and they would stop for a second then start right back yelling, threatening each other, calling each other obscene names, using fighting words and stances,” reads the report.

Although he had a year of NCAA eligibility remaining, Hampton left school early to enter the NFL draft. He was viewed as a mid-round pick, but off-field issues will likely have a negative impact on his draft stock.

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Chris Johnson: I want to prove the doubters wrong

New York Jets v Tennessee Titans Getty Images

The Jets landed running back Chris Johnson on Wednesday, ending a brief free agent stint that didn’t feature overwhelming interest around the league in Johnson’s services.

Johnson spoke to Jim Wyatt of the Tennessean after signing his contract and he had some of those teams on his mind when discussing his plans for the upcoming season. Johnson said he’s going to draw motivation from those who think he doesn’t have the same spark he had when he was running for more than 2,000 yards for the Titans.

“I have a fresh start. Now I am going to go out there with a chip on my shoulder,” Johnson said. “I know a lot of people are doubting me. I want to prove everybody wrong who has doubts in me. I am very excited about [joining the Jets]. It’s a team on the rise and I want to make them better. … I still have it.”

Johnson joins Chris Ivory, Bilal Powell and Mike Goodson in the Jets backfield at the moment, although there’s a good chance they’ll part ways with Goodson now that Johnson is in the fold. How things will shake out in terms of playing time remains to be seen, but he new Jet said he’s already spoken to offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg about the different ways he’ll be used in 2014.

“I think I’m going to fit in pretty well,” Johnson said, via the team’s website. “Just talking to him and to Rex, who’s a guy that likes to run the ball, I think I’m going to fit in very well. We talked about all those things, catching out of the backfield, getting the ball to me in space.”

Johnson had 42 catches last season, one fewer than Jets team leader Jeremy Kerley, and his four receiving touchdowns were as many as Jets leader Jeff Cumberland, which underscores the need for more offensive talent on the roster. The Jets have added that in Johnson and wide receiver Eric Decker. With more likely to come in the draft, the Jets will look a lot different offensively than they did last season and that’s a step in the right direction.

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