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Team-by-team look at who would/could/should be tagged

Clady AP

On Monday, the two-week window for using the franchise tag opens.  Every team can use the franchise tag (or the rarely-used transition tag) on one player.

Last year, 21 teams took advantage of the franchise tag, which no longer is based on the five highest-paid players at the position but on a far more convoluted (and club friendly) formula.

It’s not a coincidence.  The new formula makes it much cheaper to keep a player off the open market than it would to pay him a multi-year market contract.

Here’s a look at the team-by-team candidates for the 2013 tag, in alphabetical order.

Arizona Cardinals:  The Cardinals need to keep hard-nosed cover corner Greg Toler, but not at anything close to the eight-figure franchise number.  No other pending free agents have the talent or potential to justify franchise money.  Last year, the Cardinals used the tag on defensive end Calais Campbell; they eventually signed him to a long-term deal.

Atlanta Falcons:  Left tackle Sam Baker, drafted in round one the same year as the man whose blind side he protects, has had good years and bad years.  After starting 16 games in 2012, Baker hits the market on a high note.  Still, the glut of tackles in free agency and the draft will make it hard to justify tagging Baker; if he leaves, the Falcons can find a capable replacement after the market softens.  In 2012, the Falcons used the tag on cornerback Brent Grimes, who tore an Achilles tendon in Week One.  Tagging him would cost $12.48 million for 2013.  It would cost nearly half that amount to tag safety William Moore.

Baltimore Ravens:  It’s not a question of if the Ravens will tag quarterback Joe Flacco.  The only remaining unknown is the level of the tag.  And while a lazy look at the situation would lead to conclusively presuming that there’s no way Flacco leaves Baltimore, there’s a chance (slim, but a chance) that the player and the team could be destined for a game of chicken that would result in both cars flying off the cliff.  The Ravens could opt to go non-exclusive, daring Flacco to sign an offer sheet with another team — and assuming that he never would.  Another team with plenty of cap space could easily craft a front-loaded offer sheet that the Ravens wouldn’t be able to match.  It’s not likely, but anyone who thinks there’s no way Flacco leaves the Ravens hasn’t been paying close enough attention to the far crazier things the NFL has seen in recent years.

Buffalo BillsJairus Byrd has become one on the best free safeties in the league.  With George Wilson gone in a cap move, the Bills need to keep Byrd.  Absent a long-term deal, the tag is the only way to make it happen.  If a long-term deal can be negotiated, guard Andy Levitre becomes a candidate for the tag.  The only impediment would be the fact that interior offensive linemen get the same franchise tender as tackles.

Carolina Panthers:  Their list of potential free agents contains no names that cry out for use of the tag, especially since the Panthers are still dealing with the sins of salary caps past.

Chicago Bears:  The Bears need to keep defensive tackle Henry Melton, but they’ve already got plenty of cap space tied up with defensive players like sackmaster Julius Peppers, cornerback Charles Tillman, and linebacker Lance Briggs.  With Melton regarding himself as the best defensive tackle in the league, a long-term deal could be hard to come by.  Despite his name recognition, linebacker Brian Urlacher isn’t a serious candidate for the tag.

Cincinnati Bengals:  The Bengals are extremely careful with money.  On defense, lineman Michael Johnson is the most obvious candidate to be tagged.  It’s just as likely that the Bengals will be content to go bargain shopping (again) for defensive players to replace their bevy of free agents on that side of the ball, and then hope that defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer can whip up another batch of chicken salad.  On offense, the tag could be used to keep Andre Smith, who quietly has overcome his notorious Jello run to develop into an elite right tackle.  Last year, the tag was used on kicker Mike Nugent; tagging him again would cost only $3.48 million.  Which could make him the most likely candidate.

Cleveland Browns:  Kicker Phil Dawson was tagged in 2011 and 2012.  Using it a third time would entitle him to quarterback money.  So if it’s used, it won’t be used on him.  Punter Reggie Hodges is hitting the market after three years with the team.  Though his performance doesn’t cry out “franchise tag,” it could be cheaper to squat on him for a year than to sign a replacement on the open market; that’s why so many punters and kickers have been tagged in recent years.

Dallas Cowboys:  Tagged last year at $10.5 million, linebacker Anthony Spencer still hasn’t had the kind of impact that he should, given that he plays across from DeMarcus Ware.  Spencer isn’t worth $12.4 million for one more year.

Denver Broncos:  V.P. of football operations John Elway has said that the tag will be used on left tackle Ryan Clady, and for good reason.  Last year, Clady turned down a five-year, $50 million deal.

Detroit Lions:  It’ll take $12.4 million to use the tag for a second straight year on defensive end Cliff Avril, and it won’t be easy for the Lions to round up the kind of cap space necessary to keep him around.  Safety Louis Delmas doesn’t like being labeled as injury prone, but he is.  And the Lions will have to decide whether they want to make a long-term or short-term (via the tag) investment in the guy who could be this decade’s Bob Sanders.  Tackle Gosder Cherilus also could be tagged, but in a buyer’s market for tackles it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to do it.

Green Bay Packers:  Receiver Greg Jennings turns 30 in September.  In other words, the Packers won’t be using the tag on Greg Jennings.  The Packers learned while he was injured in 2012 that they can live without him, and they won’t be inclined to invest $10 million in cap space to a guy who plays a position that, with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, is virtually interchangeable.  If the Packers wanted to keep Jennings, they’d be trying to sign him.  They’re not, which likely means he won’t be tagged.

Houston Texans:  Last year, the Texans passed on tagging linebacker Mario Williams because of the exorbitant tender that the final year of his first-overall rookie contract would have generated.  With linebacker Connor Barwin, much less cap space would be consumed.  After seeing former Texans receiver Jacoby Jones deliver an MVP-caliber performance in the Super Bowl, G.M. Rick Smith may be a little less willing to let quality players walk away in 2013.  Another possible (and cheaper) candidate for the tag is punter Donnie Jones.

Indianapolis Colts:  The man with the self-styled boomstick can be kept off the market for the low, low price of the punter/kicker franchise tag ($2.9 million).  Absent a long-term deal, it’s hard to envision the Colts moving forward without punter Pat McAfee.

Jacksonville Jaguars:  A roster thin on star power naturally doesn’t create many franchise-tag candidates, especially with a new G.M. and (another) new coaching staff.  If linebacker Daryl Smith didn’t miss most of the season, he’d be a potential candidate.  Fullback Greg Jones would be a candidate, if fullbacks weren’t lumped in with running backs for franchise tag purposes.

Kansas City Chiefs:  The Chiefs are trying to work out a long-term deal with receiver Dwayne Bowe; if they don’t, it would cost $11.4 million to keep him around for a second season via the tag.  But receivers are more plentiful than competent offensive linemen, and new Chiefs coach Andy Reid witnessed the hard way in 2012 the consequences of not having competent blockers.  This reality makes tackle Branden Albert a more likely candidate to be tagged.  Then there’s punter Dustin Colquitt, who like most punters and kickers could be cheaper to keep via the one-year franchise tag.

Miami Dolphins:  Tackle Jake Long’s rookie deal makes the cap number for tagging him way too high to justify, especially in light of the gradual decline in his play.  With cornerback Sean Smith looking for big money, the best move could be to tag him instead of Long.

Minnesota Vikings:  G.M. Rick Spielman wants to keep road-grading right tackle Phil Loadholt.  With left tackle Matt Kalil tied up via an affordable rookie deal, the Vikings can afford to pay Loadholt a large chunk of money for at least the next two seasons, before Kalil will be looking for his second contract.  Whether that large chunk of money equates to the franchise tag for Loadholt is a decision the Vikings have to make in light of the realities of the tackle market — and within the context of the impact of the use of the tag on the expectations of receiver Percy Harvin.  They’d also like to keep fullback Jerome Felton, but there’s no fullback franchise tag; they’d have to tender him at the running back level.

New England Patriots:  The Patriots have a trio of players who are potential candidates for the tag.  Whether it’s receiver Wes Welker, tackle Sebastian Vollmer, cornerback Aqib Talib, or no one, it won’t be an easy decision.  Welker would command $11.4 million, given that he was tagged in 2012.  It would be a shock if they tag him.  Vollmer has Marcus Cannon behind him on the depth chart, plus plenty of other tackles available in free agency.  The Pats could be inclined to let Vollmer leave if someone else is willing to overpay him.  Talib presents the biggest conundrum, given his positive impact on the team’s so-so defense.  They need him, but he present plenty of risk given his history of off-field incidents.

New Orleans Saints:  Left tackle Jermon Bushrod is the most obvious candidate for the tag.  But the Saints don’t have the cap space to spare.  They easily replaced guard Carl Nicks with Ben Grubbs last year, and the tackle market is far more plentiful in 2013 than the market was for guards last season.  Defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis doesn’t project to nose tackle in the team’s new 3-4 defense, but he could be a candidate to play defensive end in Rob Ryan’s defense, if the Saints want to fork over the money necessary to keep him around.  Things would get interesting if the Saints tag Ellis as a tackle despite a desire to move him to end, since there’s a $2.6 million gap between the two tenders.

New York Giants:  But for the likely existence of collusion in the restricted free agency market, the Giants should be thinking about tagging receiver Victor Cruz.  Since teams have abandoned in recent years the pursuit of RFAs, there’s no reason for the Giants to double the compensation they’d get if someone else swipes Cruz.  Left tackle Will Beatty becomes a candidate for the tag, along with safety Kenny Phillips.  The cheapest of all would be tight end Martellus Bennett, who didn’t get the long-term deal he wanted a year ago in free agency, opting instead for a one-year stay in New York and another shot at the market.

New York Jets:  Safety LaRon Landry is the only guy who merits the tag, but his one-year deal from last year expressly prevents the team from using it.  No one else who is due to become a free agent deserves it.

Oakland Raiders:  There’s a major problem with using the franchise tag on punter Shane Lechler, apart from the fact that the Raiders have landed in a salary cap black hole.  While the franchise tag for punters and kickers will be an affordable $2.9 million in 2013, Lechler’s cap number last year was $4.9 million.  Under the CBA, he’s entitled to a 120 percent raise over that number, which translates to a cap number of $5.88 million.  It could be time for the much cheaper Marquette King, a converted receiver who has drawn comparisons to the monster-legged Reggie Roby.  Either way, it’s hard to imagine that the cap-strapped Raiders would pay a punter twice the amount of the base franchise tag for punters.

Philadelphia Eagles:  The Eagles don’t have many looming free agents, which means that they don’t have many candidates for the franchise tag.  Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie would be one, if he was, you know, better.

Pittsburgh Steelers:  The Steelers have said they won’t use the franchise tag.  Which means that receiver Mike Wallace will hit the open market.  Which means that someone will overpay him on the first day of free agency.

San Diego ChargersLook at their free agents.  Though cornerback Quentin Jammer has been a mainstay in San Diego since 2002, he’s not worth what it would cost to keep him via the franchise tag.  No one else with an expiring contract justifies the tag, which is one of the reasons why there’s a new G.M. and head coach.

San Francisco 49ers:  Safety Dashon Goldson doesn’t want to be tagged again, but what he wants and what he gets could be two different things.  Absent a long-term deal, the Niners have to keep Goldson around — even if using the tag for a second time virtually guarantees he’ll hit the market in 2014.  If Goldson gets a new deal, it’ll be interesting to see whether the Niners would use the tag on their second-string but highly versatile tight end, Delanie Walker.

Seattle Seahawks:  The ultra-low kicker tag of $2.9 million could be used to keep the strong-legged Steven Hauschka.

St. Louis Rams:  Receiver Danny Amendola has become one of the best slot receivers in the NFL, but his injury history and the eight-figure franchise tender for wideouts likely will scare the Rams away.  Still, if Amendola hits the market, he won’t be there long.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers:  The Bucs plans to spend on keeping their own guys.  When it comes to using the tag, it’s a toss-up between tackle Jeremy Trueblood and defensive end Michael Bennett, or neither.

Tennessee Titans:  The Titans reportedly are expected to use the tag on tight end Jared Cook, absent a multi-year deal.  Kicker Rob Bironas also is a possibility, but he had a cap number of $3.675 million in 2012.  Which means that the tag would cost the Titans $4.41 million in 2013, $1.5 million more than the base tag for kickers and punters.

Washington Redskins:  With $18 million in missing cap space, the Redskins can’t afford to use the tag.  Especially since tagging tight end Fred Davis again would bump his 2012 tender by 20 percent — a year after he suffered a torn Achilles tendon.  Punter Sav Rocca is a slim possibility, but even the $2.9 million will be more than the Redskins can justify with their cap situation.

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Belichick expresses gratitude to media, high school football

Bill Belichick AP

There’s a perception that Patriots coach Bill Belichick never has anything to say at his press conferences, primarily because the regular examples of Belichick not having anything to say at his press conferences becomes the sound bites from those press conferences. (Except when he’s making My Cousin Vinny references.)

But Belichick often provides lengthy, instructive answers to good questions about football, showing that he’s not generally disinclined to talk, but that he merely is reluctant to talk in response to questions that he deems to be bad or uninteresting.

On Thursday, Belichick added a finally comment at the end of his press conference, not in response to any specific question.

“I’ll jump in there and just wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving,” Belichick said. “I appreciate the professional way that this group covers us and being the conduit of information from the team to the fans. We have great fan support.

“Today is also a day to be recognized with the high school football level with so many traditional and rivalry games taking place. Having been at high school and played in those games myself, we always had a traditional Thanksgiving Day game between Annapolis and Severna Park, and I know how important that was to the teams, the families and really the whole school body that supported us. It’s such a good traditional way to capture and bring a lot of things together — family, community, friendship — and do it in a competitive way but also in a way that bonds friendship and community support. And just recognizing the high schools, the great job the coaches and those programs do to develop players that eventually become our players and how impactful they are to our players.

“When I talk to players at the [scouting] combine in the spring and so forth usually the two most influential people for kids are their parents or in some cases one parent and then the high school football coach or maybe a junior high school football coach — somebody who mentored them along the way or kind of helped them develop as young men. All of us who have had that opportunity have certainly gained from it and taken from it. So just reaching out to them with our level of appreciation for what they do for kids that we eventually see at this level and for all the support that the parents and the families and the high schools gives those teams and those players and how it brings everybody together. And again, thanks to all of you for taking time on your Thanksgiving morning to accommodate us, and we look forward to seeing you out in Denver. Happy Thanksgiving.”

It’s a rare public glimpse of the human side of Belichick, which often is kept within the hard shell of a lifelong football coach who has been involved in the game since a very early age, helping his father, Steve, break down film at the Naval Academy. Belichick usually stays true to the job, but every once in a while we get a reminder of the fact that there’s more to him than the gruff, stern, abrupt, and aloof persona he adopts when in full-blown coaching mode.

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Will Mike Shula finally get NFL head-coaching consideration?

Cam Newton, Mike Shula AP

When listing assistant coaches who could be NFL head coaches in 2016, names like Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels sit near the top of the stack. One name has yet to crack the assistant coach “A” list.

Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula.

In early 2014, PFT made the case for Shula to be considered for the vacancy in Washington, given his work with Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. Carolina had just finished a 12-4 campaign, with the 11-1 finish after a 1-3 start sparked in large part by Shula’s decision to scour Newton’s film from Auburn in search of plays and concepts that would work.

Shula didn’t get any sniffs then, he wasn’t mentioned last year after a late-season surge carried the Panthers to a second straight NFC South title, and his name has come up recently only in connection with the University of Miami vacancy.

It’s unclear why Shula, who has helped transform a spread-offense, one-read, simplistic-playbook college quarterback into one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, hasn’t gotten more attention. His father, Don, was one of the greatest coaches in NFL history. Mike Shula’s brother, David, was one of the worst of the last 25 years. And Mike had a shot with Alabama, but he was fired — and he was followed by Nick Saban, who took the program back to its houndstooth heights.

Still, there’s a fundamental difference between coaching in college and coaching in the NFL. The pro game places a major premium on quarterback play, and with so many college quarterbacks not ready for the NFL, a guy who has accomplished what so few coaches can should at least be getting talked about as an NFL head coach.

Shula’s next chance to make a name for himself while carrying one of the most recognizable names in football comes later today, when the Panthers square off against the Cowboys. In past years, players like Randy Moss and Robert Griffin III have used that spot for coming-out parties.

This year, if/when (when) Newton is throwing touchdown passes and dancing in the end zone, maybe someone who will be looking for a head coach will at least make a note of Shula’s role in that process.

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Undefeated Panthers still have Marty Hurney’s fingerprints on roster

17529d1296072619-panthers-gm-marty-hurney-says-quarterback-teams-marty-hurney Getty Images

When Panthers fans gather around their televisions this afternoon to watch their 10-0 team, there are many people for whom they should be thankful.

But one of the unheralded architects of their current success is a guy they fired over three years ago.

Fourteen of the 53 players on the Panthers roster were acquired by former General Manager Marty Hurney, before he was fired on Oct. 22, 2012. And while that’s just over a quarter of the team, he’s responsible for most of their biggest stars.

Their offense has been built from the inside out with his draft picks, with quarterback Cam Newton, center Ryan Kalil and running back Jonathan Stewart. Throw in trade acquisition Greg Olsen and free agent fullback Mike Tolbert, and the guts of their offense have been in place for years.

On the other side of the ball, former defensive player of the year Luke Kuechly, linebacker Thomas Davis, defensive end Charles Johnson and breakout cornerback Josh Norman were all drafted by Hurney.

The rest of his guys on the roster include backup quarterback Derek Anderson, punter Brad Nortman, safety Colin Jones, long snapper J.J. Jansen and defensive tackle Dwan Edwards. Three other players he acquired (Amini Silatolu, Nate Chandler and Frank Alexander) are on injured reserve.

That’s not to say current G.M. Dave Gettleman hasn’t done a good job building a championship-level roster, he has with good drafting and strategic forays into free agency. Gettleman’s also had to do it while digging out from salary cap problems, and those get pinned on the guy he replaced. But with time to look back on the glut of deals Hurney signed in 2011, it’s worth wondering how much of that cap consequence might have been avoided if owner Jerry Richardson would have let him extend some of those players before the lockout. Instead, Richardson effectively handcuffed his own roster to prove a larger labor point, at a time he was helping Roger Goodell negotiate a new CBA.

But Hurney’s best move might have been hiring first-time head coach Ron Rivera, and allowing him to develop. Rivera looked like a guy in over his head at the time Hurney was fired (he was 7-15 at that point), but has grown into a legitimate coach of the year candidate, having won 14 straight regular season games with a style built on being steady.

The greater point might be that the Panthers have allowed such a strong core of players and coaches to grow together, and the three years of stability have as much to do with their success as the individual identities of the players or coaches.

But the guy who put them there deserves at least a little credit too.

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Red Grange’s debut, 90 years later

(UNDATED):  Red Grange, the "Galloping Ghost", poses for a portrait. Grange, a three-time All-American at Illinois also played for the Chicago Bears.  (Photo by MLB Photos via Getty Images) Getty Images

On Thanksgiving night, the Chicago Bears will play the role (the Packers hope) of the Washington Generals for the Brett Favre Jersey Retirement Celebration. Ninety years ago on Thanksgiving, the Bears were the main event for a Thanksgiving Day slate of games that helped give pro football early legitimacy.

As noted by the 2015 Official NFL Record & Fact Book, Harold “Red” Grange made his debut with the Bears on Thanksgiving in 1925, sparking what then was the largest crowd in pro football history — 36,000 — to show up for what turned out to be a scoreless tie between the Bears and the Chicago Cardinals at Wrigley Field.

At a time when college football had much greater credibility and popularity than the pro game, the arrival of Grange only days after the end of his college career gave the professional football a major boost.

Not long after that Thanksgiving, the Bears played eight games in 12 days, in St. Louis, Philadelphia, New York, Washington, Boston, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Chicago. And that Thanksgiving attendance record didn’t last long; after drawing 36,000 for the game against the Cardinals, the Bears and Halas attracted 73,000 to the Polo Grounds for a game against the Giants.

The game has changed dramatically since then, but Thanksgiving is the ideal time to reflect on the rich history of the NFL, which started playing Thanksgiving Day games in 1920 with a slate of six contests: the Akron Pros against the Canton Bulldogs, the Decatur Staleys (which became the Chicago Bears) against the Chicago Tigers, the Elyira Athletics against the Columbus Panhandles, the Dayton Triangles against the Detroit Heralds, the Chicago Boosters against the Hammond Pros, and the All-Tonawanda versus the Rochester Jeffersons.

Nearly a century later, it’ll be the Philadelphia Eagles at the Detroit Lions, the Carolina Panthers at the Dallas Cowboys, and Red Grange’s Bears at Brett Favre’s Packers on Thanksgiving 2015. Enjoy the day, appreciate the gifts you have, and get ready for three helpings of the greatest game in the world.

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Titans want to up threat of Mariota running the ball

JACKSONVILLE, FL - NOVEMBER 19:  Marcus Mariota #8 of the Tennessee Titans dives for  touchdown in front of Johnathan Cyprien #37 of the Jacksonville Jaguars during the third quarter of a game at EverBank Field on November 19, 2015 in Jacksonville, Florida.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images) Getty Images

In Week 11’s game against the Jaguars, the Titans took a third quarter lead when quarterback Marcus Mariota kept the ball on a read-option and sprinted 23 yards for a touchdown.

The Jags would rally to win the game in the fourth quarter, but the sight of Mariota keeping the ball and hurting a defense with his feet is one that interim coach Mike Mularkey would like to see more of in the future. Mariota ran the ball 11 times in his first six starts of the year, but has 10 rushes in the last two weeks as Mularkey has put more emphasis on that aspect of Mariota’s game.

“We’re tinkering a little more with his running ability,” Mularkey said, via the Tennessean. “As he’s gotten healthier, we’ve put more things in there that has given him the [ability to] run. It doesn’t mean he’s going to, but it gives him the opportunity to run. … I like those plays because it keeps defenses honest. It helps the run game. One thing he is trying to do — and I’m adamant about — is what he does after he hands the ball off. If he can hold somebody for any type of time, even for a split second, it’s a guy that’s not going to be in on the play — whether that’s a guy in the secondary or a safety [wondering] ‘Does he have it or doesn’t he?'”

Mariota’s running ability was put to good use in college, but the Titans emphasized pocket passing as Mariota made the transition to the NFL during the offseason and preseason. He’s done well on that front and adding something else for defenses to think about when facing the Titans should be to his benefit well beyond the final weeks of this season.

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St. Louis, Rams fighting over London game, again

Rams keep St. Louis businesses going AP

Nearly four years ago, the Rams announced that they would play one game per year over three years in London. The St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission quickly informed the Rams that, under the terms of their lease to play games in the Edward Jones Dome, the Rams couldn’t play games anywhere but there. The two sides eventually worked out a deal to allow the Rams to play a single game in London.

Now, the Rams are scheduled to play another game in London. And the CVC promptly informed the Rams that, if they don’t move away from St. Louis, they can’t move one of the games away from St. Louis.

“We recently became aware that the NFL has selected the Rams to play in London during the 2016 football season, and have designated them the ‘home’ team,” the CVC said in a statement issued Wednesday, via the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “The Rams are on a year-to year lease and have until Jan. 28, 2016 to inform us if they will play the 2016 season at the Edward Jones Dome. We have had no formal discussions with the Rams about their 2016 intentions or a London game in 2016, but if they do play in the Dome in 2016, the terms of the lease remain in effect and provides that all Rams NFL home games (other than preseason) will be played at the Facilities.”

It seems like a gratuitous agitation of the Rams by the CVC, given that the Rams have the right to leave St. Louis after this year — if of course the NFL lets them. The CVC could be banking on indications that either the Rams will lose their current tug-of-whereabouts with the Chargers or that the NFL will kick the relocation can down the road for a year.

Regardless, it’s a strange situation in St. Louis, with a city that could soon lose all Rams games after this season making a big stink out of the possibility of losing only one next season.

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MRI shows Larry Donnell’s neck injury hasn’t healed

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 19:  Larry Donnell #84 of the New York Giants is taken down by DeMeco Ryans #59 of the Philadelphia Eagles during the first quarter at Lincoln Financial Field on October 19, 2015 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Philadelphia Eagles defeated the New York Giants 27-7. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images) Getty Images

It looked like the Giants were going to get tight end Larry Donnell back in the lineup this week when he practiced with the team upon returning from the bye week on Monday.

That feeling has changed after an MRI on his injured neck, however. Donnell sat out of practice on Wednesday after getting the results of the test and said that he and doctors are still working to figure out exactly what’s wrong with his neck.

“We thought it was just spasms and a strain,” Donnell said, via the New York Daily News. “I feel fine now, but I mean, obviously something is wrong. So we’ve just got to figure it out and see what the process is. I thought I’d be OK by now. The plan was to go into the bye and it would be 100%. But it’s not.”

Will Tye and Jerome Cunningham will continue filling in at tight end with Donnell sidelined.

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Broncos fan Christian Ponder dropped everything to join the Broncos

Mike Daniels, Christian Ponder AP

Christian Ponder got a phone call on Tuesday. By Wednesday, he was a member of the Denver Broncos.

“I’ve been in Phoenix — we live there for the offseason — just working out, waiting for the call to come and fortunately it did yesterday when I was shopping for groceries for Thanksgiving,” Ponder told reporters on Wednesday. “I had to drop everything and get on a flight.”

Ponder gladly left home abruptly for the opportunity to return to the NFL. The team that called him made it a bonus.

“I grew up a Broncos fan, a John Elway fan,” Ponder said. “I was No. 7 [in] little league baseball through college and four years in Minnesota because of that. I’m excited to be here.”

Ponder spent four years with the Vikings as a first-round pick in 2011. He joined the Raiders in the offseason, but he was cut before the regular season began. Those experiences could help him pick up the offense in Denver.

“I have a little bit of background with this kind of offense and what I ran with [Raiders Offensive Coordinator Bill] Musgrave in Minnesota and Oakland,” Ponder said. “There is a little different verbiage, but hopefully in a week or so, I’ll start getting stuff down, maybe shorter than that. I’m going to put in the time and the effort to do it as quick as possible.”

The Broncos need him to do that, because they realized based on Peyton Manning’s status that they don’t have much experience in Brock Osweiler and undrafted rookie Trevor Siemian.

“[W]e’re sitting here with a guy who has one start in this league and a kid who doesn’t have a play,” coach Gary Kubiak told reporters on Wednesday. “Me and [G.M.] John [Elway] started thinking about the concern if something happened. Good that Christian was out there. . . . He came in, worked out well. Hopefully we can catch him up a little bit.”

For now, Siemian will be the backup to Osweiler. Eventually, Ponder could take the spot.

Of course, eventually, Ponder also could be back in Phoenix buying Christmas presents, too. If/when Manning is healthy, there’s no way the Broncos will carry four quarterbacks on the 53-man roster.

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Thursday morning one-liners

Matt Schaub AP

The pregame pep-talk Ray Lewis gave the Bills last week didn’t work.

New Dolphins DE Quinton Coples is glad to be in Miami, and in a 4-3 again.

The Patriots are going to have to rely on their defense, and that might be OK.

Jets CB Dee Milliner could be the next Quinton Coples.

Ravens QB Matt Schaub has remained ready for his next chance, which comes now.

Bengals receivers don’t always expect Andy Dalton passes (or the Spanish Inquisition).

New Browns backup QB Austin Davis is ready if they need him.

The Steelers are nearly winless in Seattle.

The Texans know Drew Brees can create problems.

The Colts are taking a look at new options with 12 guys on the injury report.

Jaguars QB Blake Bortles is on pace to set a number of records.

For the Titans, even home games feel like road games.

Broncos S T.J. Ward thinks full-time officials are becoming a necessity.

The Chiefs are still running well, despite losing their best runner.

Raiders WR Amari Cooper knows his drops are a “big deal.”

Chargers coach Mike McCoy walked out of his press conference yesterday.

This is different: Cowboys LB Sean Lee was nominated for a sportsmanship award.

Giants LG Justin Pugh has shown “very little” improvement from his concussion.

Stopping the run will be a priority for the Eagles today.

Washington is dealing with communication issues because of change in the middle of the line.

The Bears have shown more progress than perhaps their record would indicate.

The Lions are hoping they can turn recent wins into a longer streak.

The weather might be the only thing to dampen the Packers’ festive night.

The Vikings are playing solid defense, and they won’t sacrifice that for more turnovers.

The Falcons aren’t sweating Matt Ryan’s recent slump.

The Panthers appear covered at long snapper today.

Saints coach Sean Payton said he couldn’t continue the “status quo” with former defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

The Buccaneers are relevant again, thanks to Jameis Winston.

The Cardinals are depending on young players, and they’re coming through.

The Rams game in London next year would violate their stadium lease in St. Louis, if they’re there.

49ers LB Ahmad Brooks is in the league’s concussion protocol.

Seahawks LB Bruce Irvin isn’t expected to make it back from his knee injury this week.

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Case Keenum limited in return to practice

at M&T Bank Stadium on November 22, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Getty Images

The failure of anyone to notice and react to Rams quarterback Case Keenum suffering a concussion during last Sunday’s game against the Ravens has led to a review of the league’s procedures for dealing with head injuries and a reminder to the league’s trainers that they’re supposed to react to such injuries in a timelier fashion than the Rams did.

While that work is going on, Keenum is working to return to the field for the team’s Week 12 game against the Bengals. He took a step toward doing that on Wednesday when he was a limited participant in practice. Coach Jeff Fisher said earlier this week that Keenum will start over Nick Foles if he’s cleared medically.

“He’s doing well,” Fisher said, via “He’s still in the protocol, so we couldn’t completely release him to full practice. But, he got under center. He split the reps with Nick and he felt pretty good. We’ll know better on Friday. Hopefully, he’ll be released and he’ll be able to play.”

Defensive end Robert Quinn remained out of practice with the hip and back injuries that kept him from playing against the Ravens. Cornerback Trumaine Johnson also sat out practice with a thigh injury.

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Bowles: It will be a bonus if Darrelle Revis plays Sunday

FOXBORO, MA - OCTOBER 25:  Darrelle Revis #24 of the New York Jets warms up before a game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on October 25, 2015 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Jets are mired in a rut after losing four of their last five games, leading their quarterback to try shaving to see if it can get the team pointed back in the right direction.

It’s unlikely that Ryan Fitzpatrick’s follicle management will have much impact on the field, however, and it is also looking unlikely that cornerback Darrelle Revis will be around this Sunday to help the team against the Dolphins. Revis suffered a concussion in last Sunday’s loss to the Texans and coach Todd Bowles didn’t express much confidence that he’d recover in time for this weekend.

Revis hasn’t progressed to the point that he’s allowed to attend meetings with the team, which meant he stayed home on Wednesday and has several steps of the concussion protocol to pass before there’s any chance he’ll be in the lineup.

“We’re ready to play without him, but if he comes back it will be a bonus,” Bowles said, via the New York Post. “We’ll see later in the week. We’re preparing to play without him.”

Bowles said the team wouldn’t change the game plan too much without Revis, who would be replaced in the starting lineup by Marcus Williams or Buster Skrine.

Center Nick Mangold also missed practice after getting stitches in his right hand on Sunday. The injury interferes with Mangold’s ability to snap the ball, which is the kind of stumbling block that centers struggle to overcome.

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Mark Sanchez to start today, chance to change his Thanksgiving legacy

Buttfumble Getty Images

We have a chance at creating a new Thanksgiving tradition today, as long as we can get Mark Sanchez to butt-fumble again.

Via Ian Rapoport and teammate Albert Breer of the NFL Network (see, today’s about sharing with family), the Eagles will in fact start Sanchez at quarterback today against the Lions.

That was expected, as Sam Bradford was questionable with a concussion and shoulder problems, and Sanchez has taken the bulk of the work this week.

But it still brings back memories of what wasn’t Sanchez’s finest moment with the Jets, but perhaps the most illustrative, his Thanksgiving 2012 play against the Patriots when he ran smack-dab into the backside of guard Brandon Moore and coughed up the ball which was returned for a touchdown by Patriots safety Steve Gregory.

Whether that kind of magic can ever be duplicated is something we’ll have to tune in to see, but it’s Thanksgiving so anything is possible.

The Lions should at least be fully stocked, as Breer points out that questionable wide receiver Calvin Johnson and cornerback Darius Slay are expected to play.

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The anonymous sources are coming after Chip Kelly’s Eagles

Chip Kelly AP

One of the hallmarks of a coach who’s losing his team is that we begin to see stories in which anonymous sources question the coach’s methods and the team’s competitive. That’s happening in Philadelphia this week.

After the Eagles’ loss to the Buccaneers on Sunday dropped the team to 4-6, quoted an agent “who requested anonymity because of fear of retribution against his client” as saying that the players don’t buy what Kelly is selling.

“Chip Kelly has lost the team,” said the agent “Between the losses and his bull[bleep] methods that aren’t working, I can tell you that the players have tuned him out.”

The agent also said there’s at least one player on the team who’s using an injury as a reason not to play, even though it’s an injury he’d be able to play through, because “he won’t play hurt for Chip.”

Without knowing the identity of the agent, it’s impossible to assess the veracity of his claims. It may be an agent who feels that his client should be paid more and is upset that Kelly hasn’t agreed to give him a new contract. But what’s clear is there’s an atmosphere in Philadelphia in which people know they’ll have a sympathetic ear when they take anonymous shots at Kelly.

Another anonymously sourced story in Philadelphia had a player saying that when running back DeMarco Murray slid instead of trying to break a tackle, it showed that Murray isn’t fully invested in the team.

“Well, when you see DeMarco sliding before getting hit, you tell me – was that giving full effort?” the anonymous Eagle told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “You see that [stuff] and it makes you wonder.”

At the moment, the anonymous sources questioning the Eagles’ heart are a whisper. If they lose to the Lions today, those anonymous sources will become a roar. And that roar may be announcing the end of the Chip Kelly era in Philadelphia.

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Seahawks to activate Jeremy Lane this week

Jeremy Lane Getty Images

The Seattle Seahawks will get some additional help back in their secondary this week against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Head coach Pete Carroll said Wednesday the team will activate cornerback Jeremy Lane from the physically unable to perform list.

“Jeremy’s going to be active,” Carroll said. “And if he makes it through the week okay, he’s going to be dressing and playing.”

Lane has practiced the last two weeks after spending the first nine weeks ineligible on the PUP list.  Lane suffered a broken arm and torn ACL in the Super Bowl in February while making the first interception of his career off Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

Lane suffered both injuries while being tackles by Julian Edelman along the Seahawks sideline.

Lane’s return comes at a needed time for Seattle. Cary Williams was benched by Seattle after allowing a 36-yard completion to Vance McDonald in the third quarter. He was replaced by Deshawn Shead, which moved Marcus Burley (playing with a cast on his right hand) into nickel duty.

Carroll said that Williams, Shead and Lane will all compete for the right cornerback job opposite Richard Sherman in practice. While Lane may become an option there in a couple of weeks, it would be unlikely he’d move straight into the starting lineup in his first game back, especially since Lane has primarily been a slot option in the past.

Nevertheless, it’s some needed veteran depth in a secondary that hasn’t played quite to its lofty standards this season. The team will still need to make a move to clear a spot on the 53-man roster for Lane later this week.

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Pete Carroll believes in Thomas Rawls, also believes Marshawn Lynch will be back this year

Thomas Rawls AP

With Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch undergoing surgery on Wednesday, the offense will rely on running back Thomas Rawls to carry the load until Lynch returns. How confident is the head coach in the undrafted rookie from Central Michigan?

“I don’t know, pretty confident,” Pete Carroll told reporters on Wednesday. “He’s done very, very well. He’s been consistent, and whenever he’s been given a real good shot he’s come through in a big way. So excited for him to have another opportunity to go out and see how our guys block for him and see what we can get done again. Not every game’s going to be like that of course, but he certainly gives us a chance to run the ball like we like to and our hopes are very high that he’s going to do very well.”

He’s also going to be expected to thrive without the offensive line changing its style.

“[W]e’re not changing anything like that,” Carroll said. “If anything, [Rawls] has to find his rhythm. He’s the one that has to adapt. There are some times that he really hits things so quickly that it’s a little bit different for us, and he’s working to time that up with the different types of runs that we have.”

But Caroll doesn’t expect Rawls to change his overall style, which is premised on not avoiding contact.

“I don’t have any concern about that,” Carroll said. “That’s who this guy is, and we wouldn’t want to change that about him. There may be a time when we talk about an opportunity, you know he could’ve taken off and not been the heat-seeking missile kind of thing, but we’ll watch and see how it goes. But at this point, I wouldn’t want to do anything to take away from his instinct to go after it and be aggressive be physical. He explained it, I saw it a little bit in his postgame. We talked about it on the sidelines, he’s got a real clear thought of what he’s doing. He’s not going out of bounds. He’s not going to run around guys. He’s going to find somebody to attack and take it to him. In that, he still makes his cuts and makes you miss too. That’s what the good runners, they have that combination that doesn’t allow a defensive guy to really know what he’s going to get.”

So will Lynch get back this year? Carroll was asked whether there’ a chance that Lynch won’t return in 2015.

“Well I think you’d have to say that there is a chance, yeah,” Carroll said. “You said is there any chance, there’s a chance, but we don’t expect that to happen.”

The Seahawks expect Lynch to be back. So who will be No. 1 on the depth chart when that happens?

“We’ll see how it goes,” Carroll said. “We think [Lynch would be the lead back], why would we not? I would think so. Let’s see how much we get a chance to work Thomas and see how [Marshawn] returns. We might be able to bring him back on a temporary basis, but we’ll just wait and see. Of course [Lynch is] the guy that we would lean on, sure.”

Regardless of what happens the rest of 2015, it’s becoming more and more clear that Rawls is the guy the Seahawks will lean on come 2016, when he’s due to make $525,000 and Lynch is set to earn a whopping $9 million.


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