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NFL morning after: The best day of the NFL year, and then the worst

John Fox, Romeo Crennel AP

Is there a better day of the year than the final Sunday of the NFL season?

If you love football, I don’t know if there is. The season’s final Sunday is the only day of the year in which all 32 NFL teams are playing, and it’s a day when so much is happening, all at once. The Bears are holding on to win narrowly at Detroit, briefly keeping their playoff hopes alive, while the Giants are blowing out the Eagles but getting eliminated anyway. The Colts are making a statement that they’re for real in the AFC, while the Texans are reeling and limping into the playoffs. The Vikings are furiously battling the Packers to reach the playoffs, while the Broncos are clinching home-field advantage by beating the Chiefs. The 49ers are clinching the NFC West by beating the Cardinals, while the Seahawks are facing a surprisingly stiff challenge from the Rams.

And to top it off, the night ended up with the Redskins reaching the playoffs by winning the NFC East championship game in Washington.

You might prefer Super Bowl Sunday, but that’s a day when the hype to actual football ratio is about 50:1. Or you might prefer Conference Championship Sunday, but if you’re a fan of one of the 28 teams that have already been eliminated, that day isn’t quite as fun. Or maybe you love NFL draft day, or the first Sunday of the season. If that’s your preference, I won’t tell you you’re wrong. But for my money, it doesn’t get any better than the Sunday of Week 17.

And then comes the Monday after Week 17, which is the worst day of the NFL year. Some people call it Black Monday. The day when a handful of head coaches, dozens of assistant coaches and quite a few team executives find out they’re fired.

Eagles coach Andy Reid, Chargers coach Norv Turner, Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel and Browns coach Pat Shurmur are almost certain to get fired today, and several other head coaches are in danger of losing their jobs. When you’re an assistant on a team whose head coach gets fired you’re almost always fired along with him, and there are plenty of assistants on other teams who get fired as well. General managers get fired, too. And although most of them don’t know it yet, there are hundreds of NFL players who were on active rosters yesterday and will never play in an NFL game again. It’s part of the business, but it’s depressing thinking about all these people going into a year in which they won’t have jobs.

At this time of year I’m always reminded of the end of the 1998 season, when then-Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson addressed the media on Black Monday. Johnson’s job was safe, and he was preparing to coach in a playoff game, but he could hardly contain his fury for the carnage in the coaching profession that took place that year, when five coaches were fired on the morning after the end of the season.

“I think it’s disgusting. Some of the better coaches in the NFL got fired today,” Johnson said on the Monday after the ’98 season ended. “I know we’re highly paid, but it’s a shame when coaches’ jobs are dependent on injuries, skyboxes, people in the stands and officiating calls. It doesn’t give me a good feeling about our profession when I see things like I saw this morning.”

These coaches are human beings, after all. They’re men with wives who relocated for their husbands’ jobs — usually men with wives who have already relocated several times, and know they’ll have to do it several more times. They’re men with kids who will go to school and hear taunts about their dads getting fired — kids who will wonder which city they’ll live in, which school they’ll go to, which taunts they’ll hear next year.

Yes, they all make a lot of money, and they’re living their dreams. I’m not playing a violin, taking up a collection or telling a sob story. But I do think that, as we reflect on how much we’ve enjoyed this 2012 season, we ought to reflect a little bit on how many of the men we watched on Sundays this year are losing their job on Monday. This game we love is a cruel, unforgiving business.

All those people losing their jobs are the ones I’m thinking about today. Here’s what else is on my mind:

Calvin Johnson is great — and so is Charles Tillman. I want to say a bit about what an amazing season Johnson had, but first this about Tillman, the Bears cornerback who deserves some consideration for Defensive Player of the Year: Tillman faced Johnson twice this season, and in those two games Johnson had 34 yards (his season-low, in October) and 72 yards (on Sunday). So in the two games when he was covered by Tillman, Johnson averaged 53 yards a game. In his other 14 games, Johnson averaged 133 yards a game.

Johnson fell short of 2,000 receiving yards this season, but he still finished the season with 1,964 yards, blowing away Jerry Rice’s old single-season record of 1,848. And Johnson outdistanced the rest of the NFL by a margin unseen in more than 60 years: Johnson ended up leading the league by a whopping 366 yards; the No. 2 receiver in the NFL, Houston’s Andre Johnson, had 1,598. The last time a player led the league by more yards than Johnson this year, it was Hall of Famer Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch in 1951, gaining 1,495 receiving yards in a year when the No. 2 spot was held by San Francisco’s Gordie Soltau, who gained 826 receiving yards. Johnson is nothing short of amazing.

The Falcons should have rested their starters. Atlanta had home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs locked up, so they had nothing to play for on Sunday against the Buccaneers. But the Falcons didn’t rest their starters, instead trying to keep the momentum going with a season-ending win over the Buccaneers. That didn’t go as planned. The Falcons lost to the Bucs, looked bad doing it, and can’t feel good about themselves heading into the playoffs. I sure don’t feel good about the Falcons going into the playoffs: The road to the Super Bowl may go through Atlanta, but I’ll be very surprised if this Falcons team gets to the Super Bowl.

Michael Vick was rusty. Vick, the Eagles quarterback who had been sidelined for the last six games, returned to the Eagles’ starting lineup on Sunday for what is presumed to be his final game with the team. He looked lousy. A Vick interception ended the first Eagles drive and set up the first Giants touchdown, and Vick completed just 19 of 35 passes for 197 yards in the Eagles’ 42-7 loss. It’s widely expected that the Eagles will release Vick after the season, and if Vick was hoping to showcase himself for some other team, he didn’t do a very good job of that on Sunday.

The AFC is coming down to Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady, again. Seven of the last nine seasons, the AFC leader in passer rating has been either Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. Eleven of the last 14 seasons, the AFC leader in passing touchdowns has been either Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. Ten of the last 15 seasons, the AFC leader in passing yards has been either Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. And seven of the last 11 seasons, the AFC Super Bowl team has been quarterbacked by either Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. With Manning’s Broncos having the No. 1 seed and Brady’s Patriots having the No. 2 seed, it appears that it’s going to be eight of the last 12 years with either Manning or Brady in the Super Bowl.

I’m ready for the playoffs. Today will be distasteful in the NFL, as we’ll spend most of the day talking about people losing their jobs. But tomorrow comes a New Year and a new NFL postseason. After binging on 16 NFL games yesterday, we only have 11 more games to enjoy until September. Let’s savor the playoffs.

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Ras-I Dowling signed to Raiders’ practice squad

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A former Patriots second-round pick is among 10 players signed to the Raiders’ initial practice squad.

Cornerback Ras-I Dowling, whom New England took with the first pick of Round Two in 2011, is the most experienced of the 10 signees announced by Oakland on Monday.

Dowling (6-1, 210) appeared in nine games for New England from 2011 through 2012. He was most recently with the Jets, who released him on August 24.

Seven of the Raiders’ practice squad members are rookies: tailback George Atkinson III, defensive end Denico Autry, linebacker Bojay Filimoeatu, linebacker Spencer Hadley, offensive tackle Dan Kistler, wide receiver Seth Roberts and tight end Scott Simonson.

Second-year offensive guard Lamar Mady and first-year defensive tackle Ricky Lumpkin round out Oakland’s practice squad.

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RG3: We fixed what we needed to fix on offense

Jay Gruden Robert Griffin III AP

Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III served as a talking point last preseason because no one had seen him play since tearing his ACL and he was a talking point again this summer because he was playing.

Griffin took too many hits in a game against the Browns and played poorly against the Ravens, leading to concerns about how quickly he’s picking up the offense installed by new head coach Jay Gruden this offseason. Griffin played down those concerns by pooh-poohing “doubters” and saying people were overreacting to preseason performances, a theme he stuck with on Monday when he said that all the work the team did in the offseason would now “come to fruition.”

“We fixed what we had to fix in practice,” Griffin said, via CSNWashington.com. “That’s for us to know and you guys to find out.”

We’ll all find out Sunday when the Redskins square off against the Texans. Any struggles in that game will lead to even more doubters for Griffin and Washington and they won’t have the preseason caveat to use as an explanation.

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Ryan Succop signs one-year deal with Titans

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The word on Monday morning was that the Titans were interested in signing kicker Ryan Succop.

The deal is done on Monday afternoon. Succop visited with the team and Terry McCormick of 247Sports.com reports that he reached agreement on a one-yet deal.

Travis Coons, who outlasted Maikon Bonani in preseason, will be dropped from the roster with Succop coming aboard. Succop was cut by the Chiefs over the weekend in favor of the younger Cairo Santos, who flashed good leg strength to go with his cheaper salary during the preseason.

Succop has made 81 percent of his field goals and all of his extra points since taking over as Kansas City’s kicker in 2009. He’ll get a chance to kick against his former team in the regular season opener.

Succop wore No. 6 in Tennessee, a number that is currently taken by punter Brett Kern. No word on whether Succop will try to persuade Kern to give it up with a monetary offer or fictional arm wrestling match.

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Lions coach doubts orientation’s reason Michael Sam’s unemployed

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Most of the practice squad jobs around the league are filled, or will be by the end of the day.

So it stands out that Michael Sam still doesn’t have a job on one of them.

But while some teams might fear the attention that comes with employing the league’s first openly gay player, Lions coach Jim Caldwell said he doesn’t think Sam’s sexual orientation is the reason he’s not signed yet.

I doubt that seriously,” Caldwell said, via Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.

The Rams figured to be his best chance, but they haven’t made a move to bring him back. Some teams will cross him off the list because he’s legitimately a bad scheme fit. The Lions weren’t interested in him initially because they like their defensive ends taller, and Sam lacks the speed to play in a 3-4 as an outside linebacker.

“He wasn’t here on our squad, we didn’t play against [the Rams) to have an opportunity to look at them,” Caldwell said. “But what I would assume is the case is the fact that he doesn’t fit in with whomever’s system, or anybody’s system right now in terms of being able to come in and play for them at this point in time. If he could, if it benefits someone, and he still may. A lot of things happen here in the next three or four days, anyway. But he still may, he may still get that opportunity.”

Sam was in familiar surroundings in St. Louis, but he also landed with one of the deepest and most talented lines in the league. Other teams lack their depth, and Sam played well enough in the preseason that a football-simple answer seems unlikely.

That only leaves our worst suspicions, which appear more true by the minute.

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Chargers sign Ricardo Mathews

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Chargers General Manager Tom Telesco reached into his past to find some help on the defensive line.

Telesco was in the Colts organization when they drafted defensive tackle Ricardo Mathews in the seventh round of the 2010 draft and he saw enough to like about Mathews to sign him to a contract with the Chargers for the 2014 season.

Mathews had 51 tackles and 1.5 sacks in 52 games, six of them starts, for the Colts. He signed with Houston in April and spent the summer with the Texans before being released as they dropped to 53 players. Mathews should settle into a reserve role behind Sean Lissemore in San Diego.

San Diego waived running back Marion Grice to open up a roster spot for Mathews.

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Rolando McClain to start in the middle for the Cowboys

Rolando McClain AP

Maybe it’s just the state of the Cowboys’ defense, or maybe Rolando McClain can really play.

Either way, the twice-retired No. 8-overall pick is a starter again, after not playing since 2012.

According to Drew Davison of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Bruce Carter said he was starting on the strong side, McClain in the middle and Justin Durant on the weak side.

Durant spent most of the preseason practicing in the middle, though he has the versatility McClain doesn’t. But team owner Jerry Jones declared McClain “very impressive” this preseason, and that endorsement means a lot.

But they were clearly hoping McClain could win the job, based mostly on the lack of impact players on their defense.

If McClain is engaged and motivated, he could be a solid player for them. Remaining that way has always been the challenge, however.

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Five questions: Baltimore Ravens

Flacco Getty Images

The Ravens followed a five-year run of playoff berths and a Super Bowl win by missing the postseason completely.  With a new offense and a defense that remains stout even amid plenty of changes, the Ravens could be closer to what they were in 2012 than what they were in 2013.  Whether they get back to the playoffs and succeed there hinges on several questions.

Five, to be exact.

That’s convenient.

1.  Will new offense work?

A year after winning the Super Bowl, Baltimore’s offense struggled under coordinator Jim Caldwell.  Though he wasn’t in danger of being fired (as far as anyone knows), his elevation to head coach in Detroit opened the door for a new approach.

Enter former Texans head coach Gary Kubiak, and his zone-blocking, one-cut, rollout pass, West Coast-influenced attack.

It requires an adjustment for everyone on the offense, and it could result in players unable to make the adjustment landing on the bench, or worse.

2.  Did they pay Joe Flacco too much money?

The starting quarterback won’t be landing on the bench or worse, not with his $120.6 million contract.  More than a year after Flacco had the team over a barrel and took full advantage of the situation, the team awaits full return on the investment.

Sure, they won a Super Bowl.  But that trophy was already in the case before they committed to depositing so many millions into Flacco’s vault.  Last year, he didn’t perform like a short-list franchise quarterback.  This year, he needs to; otherwise, the Ravens will have to start considering their options as the cap numbers begin to grow in the latter years of the deal.

Specifically, the cap number shoots from $14 million and change in 2014 and 2015 to $28 million and change in 2016, setting the stage for another potential showdown in 18 months.

3.  Is Ray Rice declining?

Big dollars in the out years of Ray Rice’s contract won’t be an issue.  His new deal, signed in July 2012, gave him $25 million in the first two seasons.

That makes is easier to keep him around now, even if Rice has begun the inevitable running-back backslide as the 30th anniversary of his birth approaches.  Also, Bernard Pierce may be a better fit for the new offense.  And he’ll get two weeks to prove that he is, thanks to Rice’s suspension.

Yes, the suspension.  No matter how much the Ravens dig in publicly regarding their support for Rice, surely some in the organization are sufficiently troubled by the events leading to the suspension to result in Rice getting no benefit of the doubt when the time comes to make an objective, detached football decision about his future with the franchise.

Beyond 2014, he possibly won’t have one.

4.  How much does Steve Smith have left?

Steve Smith had no future in Carolina beyond 2013, and it made plenty of sense for him to come to Baltimore.  Good as he is, Torrey Smith may never develop into a guy who effectively runs every route.  Steve Smith can, even if it means stepping on a few sporks.

It’s presumed that Smith, at age 35 and with a possibly nagging knee problem, can still play like he did in Carolina.  The folks in Carolina decided that he didn’t merit another $4 million beyond the guaranteed $3 million he’ll earn from the Panthers for 2014.  Even though the team reportedly hoped that removing Smith’s big personality would allow younger ones to blossom, the Panthers would have gladly paid the money if they thought Smith’s performance would merit it.

A need for more talent and a lot of toughness at the receiver position, the Ravens didn’t hesitate.  Even if Smith can’t play like he used to, the fire remains — and the Ravens are banking on it being contagious.

5.  How good is the defense?

Smith’s influence won’t be needed on the defensive side of the ball.  Even with the likes of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed long gone, the defense continues to be the soul and the strength of the team.

Defensive lineman Haloti Ngata still anchors the line, with Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, and Courtney Upshaw providing the pressure from the outside.  And while no one expects C.J. Mosley to become the next Ray Lewis, Mosley and 2013 rookie Arthur Brown could push each other to become, in combination, almost as effective.

With a great front seven, the secondary doesn’t need to be.  But veteran cornerback Lardarius Webb and second-year safety Matt Elam move the needle in that direction.

Coach John Harbaugh has said that defense aims for a top-five finish every year.  This year, the Ravens have a better chance of getting there than most realize.

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Patriots add McLeod Bethel-Thompson, long snapper to practice squad

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After the Patriots set their initial 53-man roster over the weekend, head coach Bill Belichick said that there were still moves to be made when asked about the lack of a long snapper.

There still isn’t one on the active roster, but the Patriots have added a snapper to the practice squad. It’s Charley Hughlett, who spent part of the offseason with the Patriots before getting cut in May and spending the summer with the Jaguars.

The Patriots filled out eight of the other nine spots on the practice squad with players that spent camp with them in 2014. The lone exception is quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson, who was with the 49ers this summer and spent time as the third quarterback for the Vikings earlier in his career. With Ryan Mallett traded to Houston, he becomes the third quarterback in the organization.

Wide receiver Josh Boyce cleared waivers and the 2013 fourth-round pick returned to the fold along with defensive end Jake Bequette, linebacker Ja’Gared Davis, safety Kanorris Davis, running back Jonas Gray, offensive lineman Chris Martin, defensive lineman Deonate Skinner and defensive back Daxton Swanson.

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Polamalu a Steelers captain for the first time

Troy AP

The Steelers have announced their 2014 team captains, and one of the most tenured and respected members of the team has become a captain for the first time in his career.

Safety Troy Polamalu, embarking on his 12th season with the team, will serve as the defensive captain.

Polamalu succeeds safety Ryan Clark, who left for Washington, and defensive end Brett Keisel, who re-signed only recently.  Keisel had been the lone defensive captain in Pittsburgh in 2012.

Offensively, Ben Roethlisberger serves as the captain for the fourth straight year.  Last year, he shared the duties with center Maurkice Pouncey.  This year, it’s only Roethlisberger.

The special-teams captains are safety Robert Golden and kicker Shaun Suisham.  The Steelers didn’t have a special-teams captain in 2013 or 2012.

Polamalu wears the “C” in what could be his last year with the team.  In the offseason, he invited a teammate to work out with him in the offseason — his potential successor, safety Shamarko Thomas.

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Sammy Watkins practices on Monday

Sammy Watkins AP

The Bills saw wide receiver Sammy Watkins leave two preseason games and miss a third because of a rib injury this summer, raising questions about whether or not the fourth overall pick will be healthy enough to help the team in the first week of the regular season.

Watkins took a step toward being on the field against the Bears on Sunday by taking part in Buffalo’s practice on Monday. Mike Rodak of ESPN.com reports that Watkins ran routes against air during the portion of the practice open to the media. Rodak adds that Watkins dropped the first pass his way and then did push-ups as penance for his gaffe.

It hasn’t been Bills coach Doug Marrone’s style to give much information about when injured players will return to the lineup, so Watkins’s status will likely continue to be a question throughout the week. If he does play, he’s unlikely to be 100 percent.

Given the way the Bills offense looks as a whole, that might not be a major negative.

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Giants bring Michael Cox back to practice squad

Michael Cox AP

The arrival of Andre Williams in the 2014 draft helped squeeze 2013 seventh-round pick Michael Cox off of the Giants’ 53-man roster, but Cox won’t be far away should the Giants decide they want him back on Sundays this fall.

Cox was one of seven players added to the team’s practice squad. Cox played in 14 games last season, running 22 times for 43 yards while also averaging 21.8 yards on 20 kickoff returns.

Cox won’t be the only member of the practice squad with regular season experience. The Giants also signed tackle Nick Becton, who played one game with the Chargers and was waived by them over the weekend.

2014 sixth-round cornerback Bennett Jackson, linebacker Dan Fox, defensive end Jordan Stanton, cornerback Chandler Fenner and wide receiver Julian Talley all return after being part of the cut to 53 players.

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Report: Panthers have ex-Jets WR Stephen Hill in for a workout

Stephen Hill AP

A logical potential suitor has reportedly emerged for ex-Jets wide receiver Stephen Hill.

According to Adam Caplan of ESPN, the Panthers are putting Hill through a workout on Monday.

If nothing else, the 23-year-old Hill would add a little more experience to the Panthers’ receiving corps. He made 20 starts in two seasons with the Jets, catching 45 passes for 594 yards and four touchdowns. Just two of the Panthers’ five wide receivers (Jason Avant, Jerricho Cotchery) have NFL regular season catches to their credit. Rookies Kelvin Benjamin and Philly Brown and first-year pro Brenton Bersin round out Carolina’s receiving ranks.

Any team looking at Hill has to hope he has upside to develop after an up-and-down tenure with the Jets. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound Hill — timed at 4.36 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine — is two months younger than Benjamin, the Panthers’ first-round pick in May.

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Saints sign sixth-round pick Tavon Rooks, nine others to practice squad

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The last of the Saints’ six 2014 draft picks has been added to the club’s practice squad.

Rookie offensive tackle Tavon Rooks, a sixth-round selection from Kansas State, was among 10 players signed to the Saints’ practice roster on Monday, the club said.

Rooks (6-5, 300) appeared in all four of the Saints’ preseason games as a reserve. He was waived on Saturday. His re-signing means the club’s entire draft class has a spot with the team entering the regular season.

The other players signed to the Saints’ practice squad were wide receiver Brandon Coleman, inside linebacker Todd Davis, cornerback Terrence Frederick, tight end Nic Jacobs, wide receiver Seantavius Jones, offensive guard Antoine McClain, nose tackle Lawrence Virgil, cornerback Trevin Wade and safety Pierre Warren.

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Rob Gronkowski says he’s a go for Week One

Rob Gronkowski AP

The Patriots started last season without tight end Rob Gronkowski on the field.

It doesn’t look like they’ll find themselves in the same predicament this time around. Gronkowski said Monday that he’s been given the green light to play against the Dolphins in the opening weekend of the regular season.

“Super excited. Super pumped,” Gronkowski said, via Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com. “I feel mentally and physically ready, for sure.”

Gronkowski added that he won’t be playing every snap, saying that he hopes to get his “feet wet” against Miami before taking on a bigger role in the coming weeks.

Gronkowski’s injury history is extensive enough that there will be concerns that he’s putting himself at risk by trying to come back too soon. Those risks are always going to exist for a player who plays the way Gronkowski does, though, and the benefits to the Patriots offense when he’s in the lineup are massive enough that the team is willing to make the gamble.

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Jeff Tuel headlines Bills practice squad

Jeff Tuel AP

The Bills’s decision to shake up their quarterback depth chart with the acquisition of Kyle Orton means that there was no room for Jeff Tuel on the team’s 53-man roster.

There’s still a place for him in the organization, however. Tuel is back with the Bills as a member of the practice squad and would likely be in line for a trip back to the active roster should anything happen to EJ Manuel or Orton over the course of the season.

Tuel isn’t the only player recently cut by Buffalo to make his way back to the team. Defensive back Deon Broomfield, linebacker Jimmy Gaines, wide receiver Caleb Holley, defensive end Ike Igbinosun, defensive end Bryan Johnson and defensive back Kenny Ladler were all with the team through training camp. Guard D.J. Morrell and running back Lonnie Pryor, who failed to make the Rams and Buccaneers respectively, were also added to the practice squad.

The Bills also announced that they have released tight end Tony Moeaki from injured reserve.

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