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Bears sign Tom Zbikowski

The Colts' Zbikowski tackles Buffalo's Jones during an NFL football game in Indianapolis, Indiana. Reuters

Tom Zbikowski is heading home to Chicago.

Zbikowski, a free agent safety who was born and raised in the Chicago area, has agreed to a one-year contract with the Bears.

A 2008 third-round draft pick of the Ravens out of Notre Dame, Zbikowski played four seasons for the Ravens before following his old defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano to Indianapolis and signing with the Colts last year. Zbikowski was a starter for the first 11 games of last year in Indianapolis before his season was cut short by a knee injury.

Zbikowski will most likely back up Major Wright at strong safety in the Bears’ secondary.

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Houston “Hard Knocks” lets NFL put Watt front and center

Watt AP

J.J. Watt is just the kind of player the NFL wants to market, a fierce warrior on the field who turns into an easygoing, likable guy as soon as the game ends. So with process of elimination seeming to leave the Texans as the team that will be featured on this year’s Hard Knocks, it’s a good bet that NFL Films will put Watt front and center.

Watt is the NFL’s best defensive player but is not as well known to a mass audience as some of the league’s biggest stars. Hard Knocks is a way for the league to humanize Watt and bolster his popularity.

Hard Knocks also needs Watt because the Texans are, frankly, not as compelling a team as some of the past teams featured on the show. Coach Bill O’Brien isn’t made for reality TV the way Rex Ryan is, and although the Texans’ quarterback competition will be a major element of training camp, Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett don’t exactly make for appointment television.

So it will be Watt around whom the upcoming season of Hard Knocks will be featured. At a time when many well-known players are getting attention for the wrong reasons, the NFL will like that.

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Moss shows up for high school graduation of fan in Minnesota

Moss Getty Images

In 1998, then-Vikings rookie Randy Moss made good on his vow to rip up the league. Along the way, he befriended a toddler named Kassi Spier.

Kassi fought leukemia as a four-year-old in 2000. In 2004, her father died in a car accident. In 2013, Kassi learned that she had a brain tumor.

On Friday, Kassi Spier graduated from high school. And her friend Randy Moss was there for it.

Via inforum.com, Moss traveled to Pelican Rapids, Minnesota, a 2,500-resident town 45 miles southeast of Fargo, to hand Kassi Spier her high school diploma at Friday’s commencement ceremony.

Moss last played in the NFL in 2012, appearing in Super Bowl XLVII with the 49ers. He started his career with the Vikings, spending 1998 through 2004 in Minnesota. He returned to the Vikings for a brief stretch in 2010.

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New coordinator aside, few changes expected on Steelers’ defense

Ryan Shazier, Keith Butler AP

Dick LeBeau is out and Keith Butler is in, but the Steelers’ defense isn’t changing.

That’s the word from Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward, who says the change at defensive coordinator is the only difference for the Steelers. Heyward says the Steelers’ D will still run the same schemes with Butler (who has been the team’s linebackers coach for the last 12 years) as it did under LeBeau (who has moved to the Titans after spending the last 11 years running the defense in Pittsburgh).

“I don’t think there are going to be too many changes,” said Heyward. “It’s going to be the same details. We will have a couple of new wrinkles, but we won’t share them now.”

The Steelers’ defense had a rough year in 2014, and they need to change something. But those changes will have to come from the players. The coaches are going to run the same system they’ve been running in Pittsburgh for a long time.

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Hernandez claims he’s running out of cash

Hernandez Getty Images

After nearly two years of legal maneuverings in multiple criminal cases and with no income, it’s no surprise that former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez is running out of cash.

One of his lawyers, John Fitzpatrick, made that argument to a Massachusetts judge on Thursday in connection with the efforts of the mother of Odin Lloyd, Ursula Ward, to find assets that can satisfy the wrongful death lawsuit filed previously against Hernandez.

Ward’s lawyer, Douglas Sheff, hopes to obtain more information about property owned by Hernandez. Already, his $1.3 million North Attleboro home can’t be sold. Also, a court order has blocked Hernandez from selling a 2005 Hummer.

The families of Safiro Furtado and Daniel de Abreu have also filed wrongful death claims against Hernandez, as has Alexander Bradley, who claims Hernandez shot Bradley in the face in February 2013.

Still pending is an effort by Hernandez to recover the remainder of his August 2012 signing bonus — $3.25 million from the Patriots. That money presumably will go to any victims who can prove by a preponderance of the evidence that Hernandez injured or killed them. With Hernandez also convicted via proof beyond a reasonable doubt of killing Lloyd, the civil action against Hernandez arising from Lloyd’s death is a slam dunk.

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No developments yet in Mariota talks

Marcus Mariota, former Oregon quarterback and overall No. 2 NFL football draft pick by the Tennessee Titans, answers questions during a news conference Friday, May 1, 2015, in Nashville, Tenn. Mariota was selected by the Titans in the first round Thursday. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey) AP

The Titans and quarterback Marcus Mariota had intended to commence contract negotiations this week. If they did, they didn’t get very far.

Per a source with knowledge of the situation, no developments are expected this week.

Mariota is the only pick taken in the top seven who has not yet signed. Because the first overall pick in the draft (quarterback Jameis Winston) signed a deal that includes offset language for the fully-guaranteed four-year deal and the third overall pick (linebacker Dante Fowler Jr.) agreed to a contract that has no offset language (allowing Fowler to get paid twice, if he gets cut), the question of whether Mariota’s language will include offset language could become a major sticking point.

Otherwise, the deal could be done very quickly, especially since the ceiling has been set by Winston and the floor by Fowler.

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NFL may see its first one-point safety

safety AP

A little-noticed aspect of the NFL’s new extra point rule is that we could see, for the first time in league history, a one-point safety.

If the defense gets the ball in the field of play on a conversion attemp, and then a defensive player takes the ball into his own end zone and is tackled, the result will be a one-point safety: The offensive team will get one point. That has never happened before in NFL history.

It had never happened before because it was virtually impossible: In the past, any time the defense took possession of the ball on a point-after attempt (either a one-point kick or a two-point conversion), the play was blown dead. A one-point safety was theoretically possible before, but it would have happened only if the defensive team had illegally batted a fumbled ball in the end zone.

One-point safeties have happened in college football, most notably in the 2013 Fiesta Bowl, when Kansas State blocked an Oregon extra point and a Kansas State player picked up the ball and ran it into his own end zone. The college rule that gives the defense the opportunity to score two points by returning an interception, fumble or blocked kick to the opposite end zone means that defensive teams that take possession of the ball will try to run it back for a score, and sometimes those players end up getting tackled after backtracking into their own end zones.

With that rule now in place in the NFL, it will happen in the NFL eventually as well: Some defensive player is going to reverse field, get caught in his own end zone, and give up the first one-point safety in NFL history.

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Alouettes G.M. high on Michael Sam’s pass-rushing ability

Michael Sam AP

If Michael Sam is a success with the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes, the NFL might not get a shot at him until 2017.

Sam’s two-year deal is essentially two one-year contracts, with Montreal holding the option for 2016, Alouettes General Manager Jim Popp told PFT on Friday. The club has until the end of 2015 to exercise the second year of the deal.

Short of the Alouettes terminating the contract, Sam’s playing rights will belong to Montreal for the duration of the deal, Popp said. Also of note: the NFL’s CBA forbids clubs from signing “any player who in the same year has been under contract to a Canadian Football League club at the end of that CFL club’s season (regular season or postseason, whichever is applicable).”

The Alouettes have had interest in signing Sam, the former Rams and Cowboys defensive end, since last year. Negotiations “heated up really strong last week,” Popp said Friday.

Sam will work at both defensive end spots in Montreal, where he will get a chance to show he can get after the quarterback, especially on obvious passing downs.

“He can really turn and bend the corner,” Popp said, noting that Sam has “a great first step.”

The Alouettes already have an accomplished end in John Bowman, a 32-year-old Wingate (N.C.) University product who’s notched double-digit sacks in five of the last six seasons. And as Popp noted, Sam can also seek guidance from Alouettes defensive quality control coach Anwar Stewart, a recently retired productive pass rusher for Montreal.

As Popp sees it, the 6-foot-2, 260-pound Sam’s skill set suits the Canadian game well.

“He’s just a classic tweener that excels in the CFL as a rush end,” Popp said.

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NFLPA not commenting on Roger Goodell’s refusal to recuse

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The players union is apparently going to wait through the holiday weekend before turning up the volume.

According to Albert Breer of the NFL Network, the NFLPA is declining comment on commissioner Roger Goodell’s decision to hear Tom Brady’s appeal of his four-game suspension.

NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said earlier on ESPN’s Outside the Lines: “If we don’t get a response by the end of next week, we’ll certainly increase the volume of the request.”

Of course, there’s also the possibility of filing a lawsuit on Brady’s behalf to prevent Goodell from hearing the appeal himself.

But with everyone heading out for the holiday weekend, they’re probably better served turning their criticism of Goodell as witness/arbitrator until the rest of the country’s back at work on Tuesday and ready to listen.

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Report: Goodell rejects NFLPA request to recuse himself from Brady appeal

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During an appearance on ESPN Friday, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said that the union would “certainly increase the volume of the request” didn’t get a response from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to their request that he recuse himself from hearing Tom Brady’s appeal by the end of next week.

According to multiple reports, the union has gotten their response and it is the one that most people were expecting after Goodell said at the league meeting this week that he wanted to hear from Brady himself. Goodell will not be turning the appeal over to a neutral arbitrator, which is a decision that’s sure to increase the volume from the union all by itself.

A date has not been set yet for the appeal and Smith said Friday that the union has not decided whether to file a lawsuit asking that Goodell be removed as the arbitrator before the appeal is heard. The NFLPA has said it intends to call Goodell as a witness, which is among the issues they feel demands that he recuse himself from the proceedings.

Goodell said that he looks forward “to hearing directly from Tom if there’s new information” that can help in “getting this right.” That’s raised speculation that the suspension could be reduced if Brady agrees to hand over the text messages that he was unwilling to provide Ted Wells during the investigation that preceded his report and Brady’s discipline.

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Delvin Breaux catching notice in Saints practices

Montreal Alouettes v Hamilton Tiger-Cats Getty Images

The Saints picked two cornerbacks in this year’s draft as part of an overhaul to the group that started when they signed Brandon Browner as a free agent, but P.J. Williams and Damian Swann aren’t the only players on the coaching staff’s radar in their first NFL offseason.

There’s also Delvin Breaux, who signed with the Saints in January after playing two years with Hamilton in the Canadian Football League. Breaux landed on that side of the border after a stint in the Arena League jumpstarted a football career that slowed because of a spinal injury that kept him from playing in college. The long road to get to the NFL may pay off for the 27-year-old.

At 6-1 and 196 pounds, Breaux has the kind of size that teams look for at corner and there were several other teams interested in his services before he landed in New Orleans. Breaux says he feels comfortable playing anywhere in the secondary and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan called him a “tremendous” player recently. Veteran cornerback Keenan Lewis gave a similar review of what he’s seen from Breaux thus far this spring.

“You’re definitely going to hear from him. Right now, you know, I’m very impressed at minicamp,” Lewis said, via the New Orleans Advocate. “The guy’s got talent. He just had to go through some of the things he went through. I can promise you that he will definitely be a star in the league this year.”

Browner, Lewis, Williams and Swann are pretty good bets to make the team at corner and Stanley Jean-Baptiste was a second-round pick last year, which may not leave a lot of spots up for grabs at the position. Breaux seems to be on the right track, though, and will be a player to watch as the summer unfolds if he stays on his current path.

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49ers hope this is the year Lawrence Okoye shows he can play

San Francisco 49ers' Okoye stands on the field before their NFL pre-season football game against Denver Broncos in San Francisco Reuters

The 49ers took a chance two years ago when they signed Lawrence Okoye, a British discus thrower who had never so much as put on a pair of shoulder pads. After spending 2013 on injured reserve and 2014 on the practice squad, this is the year the 49ers hope the decision to sign Okoye pays off.

The 6-foot-6, 304-pound Okoye has the physical tools to play defensive line in the NFL, and the 49ers need some depth on the defensive line after losing Justin Smith to retirement and cutting Ray McDonald. The San Jose Mercury News notes that Okoye could be part of the 49ers’ plans in replacing those losses.

“I’m not going to talk about what I deserve or possible roster spots. I’m just going to say we’ve got a great D-line,” Okoye said. “We’ve got some really good, young talent and we’re all competing. Whatever they do, they’re going to have a good D-line, that’s all I can say. I’m enjoying it, and I’m looking forward to training camp and the preseason.”

New 49ers head coach Jim Tomsula was Okoye’s position coach the last two years, and Okoye says he has a strong connection with Tomsula.

“I’m so happy for him. Without him, I wouldn’t still be in the league. It’s great for me to see that he’s getting his just deserves. He’s been such a good coach for such a long time,” Okoye said.

Tomsula has his work cut out for him this year in San Francisco. Getting a contribution from Okoye would help.

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Union hasn’t heard from Commissioner on recusal request, yet

Smith Getty Images

In a wide-ranging interview with Bob Ley of ESPN’s Outside the Lines, NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith addressed the status of the union’s request that Commissioner Roger Goodell recuse himself from the appeal hearing in Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s four-game suspension for being “at least generally aware” of a scheme to deflate footballs.

Smith told Ley that the union has yet to hear anything in response to the formal request that Goodell step aside, due both to his status as a witness in the case and his inability to be impartial. The request apparently will be reiterated if a response doesn’t come soon.

“If we don’t get a response by the end of next week, we’ll certainly increase the volume of the request,” Smith said.

Goodell’s comments from Wednesday indicate fairly clearly that he still intends to handle the appeal personally. Smith declined to divulge whether a lawsuit challenging Goodell’s intent to serve as the arbitrator will be filed before or after Goodell issues a ruling on the appeal.

Earlier on Friday, the league office told PFT that a date has not yet been set for the Brady appeal hearing.

As to the arguments in support of a reversal of the suspension, Smith opted not to share many details. Most significantly, he pointed to the decision to embrace the recollections of referee Walt Anderson on all points except the question of which of the two pressure gauges he used when setting air-pressure levels before the game. The gauge that Anderson recalled using generated halftime PSI readings that are almost entirely consistent with the operation of the Ideal Gas Law.

Smith also provided this general assessment of the 243-page document generated by independent investigator Ted Wells: “The Wells report delivered exactly what the client wanted.”  As to the independence of the Wells investigation, Smith added, “You can’t really have credibility just because you slap the word ‘independent’ on a piece of paper.”

Many still wonder why the NFL would have wanted to find the Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady guilty. At one level, this was about re-establishing the Commissioner’s role as “The Enforcer,” proving to the world that he’ll never again go too easy on anyone suspected of wrongdoing. At another level, it created an opportunity for one or more league officials with a bias against the Patriots to initiate the launch sequence for full-blown investigation and punishment by, most significantly, leaking false PSI information to ESPN, which created the impression that someone must have messed with the air pressure and which placed the Patriots, who didn’t know the true readings until March, on their heels.

After ESPN reported that 11 of 12 New England footballs were two pounds under the 12.5 PSI minimum, the NFL never corrected the record. The real numbers ultimately appeared in May, as part of a lengthy report that never even acknowledged the false leak that ultimately allowed Ted Wells and company to milk millions from the league’s coffers in an investigation that, if the real numbers had been released at the outset, probably would have never happened.

This didn’t start as a grand conspiracy. It started based on halftime readings below 12.5 PSI and ignorance to the application of science to football air pressure, and it grew into an occasion to re-establish the potency of the Commissioner.

At a time when many believe the Commissioner’s strings are manipulated from above, this case may have been sparked by his strings being manipulated from below. And now the NFLPA is hoping to get the case resolved by someone who has no strings attached to the league or any of its teams.

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Brees dodges #DeflateGate questions

Brees Getty Images

This time around, Drew Brees doesn’t need an explanation.

Three years after the Saints found themselves in the cross hairs of a league investigation that had the feel of a mouse being hunted with an elephant gun, the Patriots find themselves in the same situation. With the Patriots, however, Saints quarterback Drew Brees is keeping a much lower profile.

“Honestly, I’m just worried about my team and doing what we need to do to win a championship, and to your point, being on that side of it at one time, it’s a difficult situation, it’s not favorable for either side to have to go through something like that,” Brees said earlier this week on ESPN Radio, Nick Underhill of New Orleans Advocate. “You hope for the best resolution, and then it’ll be back to playing football.”

Brees had more (but not much more) to say about the process of preparing footballs for game play.

“Honestly, I’ve never given it that much thought,” Brees said. “I really haven’t. You know, there is a process by which we pick footballs before a game. You kind of break them in, in practice, you kind of rub them down, whatever, but once they’re out on game day, you’ve got other things to worry about other than what the balls are like.

“You know, you’re focused on throwing to the right guy, being on time, where are the defenders, who’s coming to get you. You’ve got enough things going on, but honestly, I really have never given it that much thought other than, I like the balls broken in a certain way, but then after that, I think you just play ball with whatever ball comes up.”

It’s no surprise that Brees is keeping a low profile. Most players are. Still, like many other players who don’t play for the Patriots, Brees opted not to rush to Tom Brady’s defense. Which, when considering the volume of the players who have opted not to rush to Brady’s defense, says something.

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Twenty-four years ago Friday, the NFL moved to add two teams

Carolina Panthers v San Francisco 49ers Getty Images

The 1980s saw the NFC dominate the NFL, winning eight of 10 Super Bowls. The 49ers were the team of the decade, capturing four championships. Teams were prone to make music videos. Coaches were known to wear wonderful sweaters.

However, one thing we didn’t see in the 1980s was NFL expansion. The league stayed put at 28 teams, just as it had since 1976, when Seattle and Tampa Bay came on board.

But at the start of the 1990s, the NFL wanted to get bigger. And 24 years ago today, the league’s teams approved a plan to expand by two teams by 1994.

Ultimately, the two new teams — the Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars — did not start play until 1995. They were followed by the “new” Cleveland Browns (1999) and Houston Texans (2002).

The question now, of course, is when a Los Angeles-area team or teams follows these additions.

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Bills say they still don’t want to do “Hard Knocks”

Rex Ryan AP

It sure looks like the Texans can be on “Hard Knocks” if they want to, since the other alleged finalists swear they don’t want to.

Washington has already indicated a lack of interest, and now the Bills have affirmed theirs.

They said in March they didn’t want to, and a team source tells Mike Rodak of ESPN.com that they’re still not.

They’re not on the list of teams which could be compelled to do it, since they have a first-year coach, but a report this morning listed them as a finalist for the show.

That’s kind of a shame, as Texans coach Bill O’Brien doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who will make compelling television. We already know Rex Ryan does.

And even though O’Brien has seemed indifferent about the show in the past, it’s looking more and more like he’s got it.

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