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NFL morning after: Filling in the playoff picture

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Ten NFL Sundays down and seven to go, and I know who’s making the playoffs.

OK, I might be wrong about a few, and in seven weeks you might remind me of this column and point out all the places where I was wrong and make me eat my words. But I actually think that as you go through the NFL standings right now, you can get a pretty accurate picture of how the final standings are going to look seven weeks from now. Let’s go through it:

NFC East: Dallas. Despite Sunday night’s massacre in New Orleans, I still favor the 5-5 Cowboys over the 5-5 Eagles, largely because the Cowboys have already won at Philadelphia. The Cowboys and Eagles meet in Week 17 in Dallas, and I think the Cowboys will complete the season sweep and seal the division title on the last day of the season.

NFC North: Detroit. The Lions’ win over the Bears gives Detroit a one-game lead, and considering how easy the Lions’ schedule is, plus the fact that the Packers are down to Scott Tolzien at quarterback, we can pencil in the Lions to win the North.

NFC South: New Orleans. The 7-2 Saints, whose offense looked amazing on Sunday night in Dallas, will hold off the 6-3 Panthers.

NFC West: Seattle. After San Francisco lost to Carolina on Sunday, the Seahawks have a two-game lead over the 49ers, and Seattle has a head-to-head win over San Francisco as well. This is Seattle’s division.

NFC wild cards: Carolina and San Francisco. The 49ers and Panthers are currently a game ahead of the pack at 6-3, and I’ll be shocked if they don’t end up as the two NFC wild card teams. The 5-4 Bears, Packers and Cardinals are all in the mix, as are the 5-5 Eagles, but the Panthers and 49ers are pretty clearly the two best in the wild card chase.

AFC East: New England. The Patriots lead the Jets by two games in the standings and will win this division for an amazing 11th time in Tom Brady’s 12 years as their starting quarterback.

AFC North: Cincinnati. The Bengals missed a golden opportunity to put the division away on Sunday in Baltimore, but they’re still a game and a half ahead, and they’re going to win this division.

AFC South: Indianapolis. The Colts looked terrible against the Rams on Sunday, but Indianapolis is still two games ahead of Tennessee, and Houston and Jacksonville have no shot. It’s the Colts by default.

AFC West: Denver. This is the only division that I don’t think the current first-place team will win. I expect the 8-1 Broncos to sweep the 9-0 Chiefs, winning this week in Denver and then winning in Kansas City in Week 13, and Denver will win this division.

AFC wild cards: Kansas City and New York Jets. The second-place team in the AFC West will be the top wild card team, so let’s pencil the Chiefs in for that spot. The biggest question mark on the board is the sixth and final AFC playoff spot: As of right now the Jets would get it, and I think they’ll hold onto it holding off the Dolphins, Chargers, Browns, Ravens and Titans.

A lot can change in the next seven weeks, especially if a key player is injured. (It’s worth noting that before Aaron Rodgers went down, I thought the Packers had a very good chance of getting to the Super Bowl, and now I’m picking them to miss the playoffs.) But I’m feeling pretty confident that I’ve got this whole playoff picture figured out. Here are the rest of my observations from Sunday:

Another terrible game for Trent Richardson. With five carries for two yards in Sunday’s loss to the Rams, Richardson now has 88 carries for 250 yards, an average of 2.8 yards a carry, in seven games as a Colt. It’s looking more and more like the Browns fleeced the Colts when Indianapolis shipped a first-round draft pick to Cleveland in the Richardson trade.

Another terrible game for Ray Rice, too. Rice had 18 carries for 30 yards in the Ravens’ win over the Bengals on Sunday. He’s now averaging 2.5 yards a carry this season. That’s a stunningly bad average for a three-time Pro Bowler who had never averaged less than 4.0 yards a carry in any season of his career before. Rice has no room to run behind a terrible Baltimore offensive line.

The Seahawks’ secondary is sensational against tight ends. One of the things that really stands out when you watch Seattle is the way strong safety Kam Chancellor and middle linebacker Bobby Wagner cover tight ends. On Sunday Seattle played one of the best tight ends in the league, Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez, and totally kept him in check: Gonzalez didn’t catch his first pass until it was basically garbage time, with the score 26-3 Seattle in the third quarter, and Gonzalez finished the day with just three catches for 29 yards.

Clay Matthews looked like Art Jimmerson at UFC 1. Matthews is playing with a massive club on his broken right hand. He’s a tough guy for wanting to be out there, but he looked like he was struggling and had a quiet day in the Packers’ loss.

That’s the Tavon Austin the Rams thought they were drafting. Through the first nine weeks of the season, Austin looked like one of the NFL’s more disappointing rookies, averaging just 6.7 yards a catch. On Sunday, Austin had touchdown catches of 81 and 57 yards and threw in a 98-yard touchdown on a punt return as well. I still have my doubts that Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer is the right guy to find ways to get Austin the ball in space consistently, and it’s worth pointing out that Schottenheimer only called four plays for Austin (three passes, one run) all game on Sunday. But there’s no doubt that Austin has game-breaking talent.

Welcome back, Jake Ballard. It was nice to see Ballard catch a pass for the Cardinals on Sunday in his first live game action since the Super Bowl almost two years ago. As the Giants’ starting tight end in that Super Bowl, Ballard suffered a major knee injury in the game and hadn’t been able to get all the way back to 100 percent healthy for more than a year. Both the Giants and the Patriots released Ballard, but he signed with the Cardinals last week and is already contributing to the offense.

Giovani Bernard has some learning to do. Bernard, the Bengals’ rookie running back, is a superb young talent who’s a threat to break off a long gain every time he touches the ball. But he needs to learn that there are times when you just need to lower your shoulders and run straight ahead, and one of those times is when you get the ball on fourth-and-2 in overtime. Bernard tried to dance around after catching a swing pass from Andy Dalton, and he ended up losing 11 yards. Those 11 yards helped the Ravens greatly when they won the game with a 46-yard field goal on the next possession.

What happened to Colin Kaepernick? The 49ers’ quarterback was awful against the Panthers on Sunday. Since throwing for 412 yards in Week One, he’s only reached 200 passing yards once. On Sunday he completed 11 of 22 passes for 91 yards, with no touchdowns and one interception.

Did the Jaguars just cost themselves the No. 1 pick? It’s nice that Jacksonville won a game and assured itself of avoiding the fate of the 0-16 Lions of 2008. But did the Jags cost themselves the chance to draft their franchise quarterback of the future (maybe Oregon’s Marcus Mariota or Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater) with the first overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft? Actually, I don’t think so. Looking at the rest of the schedule, I think there’s still a good chance the Jags will finish 1-15. And while the Buccaneers are currently winless, they have a few winnable games the rest of the way and should finish more like 2-14 or 3-13. The Jaguars are so far out of the playoff race that they can’t even see the leaders, but they’re still in the pole position in the race for the No. 1 overall pick.

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Report: Packers’ coaches “incensed” Ted Thompson let T.J. Lang walk

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When the Packers decided not to out-bid the Lions for veteran guard T.J. Lang last month, it was business as usual: The Packers don’t overspend in free agency, and when a soon-to-be 30-year-old guard with a hip injury hits free agency, that’s the type of player you’d expect to leave in Green Bay.

Nonetheless, it apparently didn’t sit well with Green Bay’s coaching staff.

According to Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Packers’ coaches were incensed that G.M. Ted Thompson let Lang get away in free agency. McGinn suggests that longtime Packers offensive line coach James Campen was working hard to keep Lang and was particularly upset when the Packers didn’t keep him.

If that’s true, it’s not unusual: Coaches are loyal to the guys who have worked hard for them. Lang has worked hard for Campen for eight years. They had a good relationship. No coach wants to see a favorite player leave.

McGinn, however, drops that nugget into a larger piece suggesting the Packers are cheap, and Thompson’s frugal approach is hurting the team on the field. McGinn notes that the Packers carried over nearly $8 million in cap space from 2016 to 2017 as apparent evidence of Thompson’s excessive frugality, but in reality that’s nothing out of the ordinary. According to NFLPA records, the Packers carried over $7.98 million in cap space, while the average NFL team carried over $9.18 million in cap space. In other words, not only was Thompson overly frugal in his handling of the salary cap last year, but he was actually less frugal than average.

McGinn also notes that over the last six years, the Packers have always ranked somewhere between seventh and 18th in the NFL in the amount of cap space they carried over from one year to the next. So the Packers are actually closer to the middle of the league in terms of carrying over cap space than they are extremely frugal.

And, of course, the Packers have made the playoffs eight years in a row. Thompson’s cautious approach to cap management is designed to keep the team in contention year after year, rather than having some boom years when they spend big on free agency, followed by some bust years when they have to cut key players just to get under the cap. It’s hard to deny that it’s working as planned.

It’s possible that Lang will play great for the Lions, that the Packers’ offensive line will decline without him, and that a year from now we’ll all be saying that Thompson made a mistake not spending the money it would have taken to keep Lang. But even if it turns out that the coaches are right to be incensed about Lang, that doesn’t mean Thompson’s thinking was flawed.

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Teenager’s wish will come true by announcing Ravens first draft pick

In recent years, the NFL has deployed a variety of ways to announce later-round picks in the NFL draft while NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has continued to hold court in the first round.

That won’t be the case if the Ravens make a first-round pick on Thursday. Assuming the Ravens don’t trade out of the first round, 14-year-old TJ Onwuanibe will be doing the honors.

Onwuanibe made the news early last week by organizing a drive to donate pajamas to terminally ill children and then made it again when Ravens coach John Harbaugh told him by video at a school assembly that he’d be announcing the Ravens’ top pick. Onwuanibe was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2015 — he is now in remission — and asked, via the Make-a-Wish Foundation, if he could announce the Ravens pick.

The Ravens are scheduled to pick 16th overall when the draft gets going in Philadelphia on Thursday night.

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Jerry Hughes: Defensive change lets us “play to our strength”

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When the Bills hired Sean McDermott as their new head coach earlier this year, it meant that their defense would be undergoing a schematic change.

Rex Ryan’s 3-4 base defense was out and McDermott, with defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier’s help, would be installing a 4-3 look. For many Bills veterans, the shift is a familiar one as they went from a 4-3 under coordinator Jim Schwartz in 2014 to playing in Ryan’s system.

Ryan’s system generated more than a few complaints from Bills defenders over the last two years with communication issues and the complexity of the former coach’s scheme at the top of the list. Jerry Hughes, who will move from outside linebacker back to defensive end, is happy about the new look in Buffalo.

“It allows us to kind of play to our strength,” Hughes said, via the Buffalo News. “Four guys coming off the ball, creating that havoc, closing in on that pocket, putting a lot more pressure on QBs than just allowing him to stand back there and just pick us apart. … He wants us to out there and play fast and play physical. That’s the two main focal points that they’re bringing.”

Hughes had 20 sacks in his first two seasons with the Bills, but recorded just 11 over two years playing for Ryan. If he can return to form along with the rest of the defense, it will give McDermott an early edge over his predecessor when it comes to the chances of finally ending Buffalo’s playoff drought.

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Rams waive Tre’ Jackson after failed physical

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Guard Tre’ Jackson’s stay on the Rams roster turned out to be a short one.

Jackson was claimed off of waivers last week after the 2015 third-round pick’s time with the Patriots came to an end. He was back on the market a day later, however.

Jackson failed his physical with the team and was dropped from the roster as a result. Jackson missed all of the 2016 season because of a knee injury that appears to still be an issue standing between him and the football field. Jackson may get a chance to show he’s healthy down the road, but it may be a little while before he lands on another roster.

Even without Jackson, the Rams have done a lot of work on the offensive line this offseason. They’ve signed left tackle Andrew Whitworth and center John Sullivan as free agents and moved Rob Havenstein and Greg Robinson to new positions as they try to build a more effective unit in Sean McVay’s first season as head coach.

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Sunday morning one-liners

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Family ties top this list of reasons why the Bills should draft Ole Miss QB Chad Kelly.

Dolphins TE Julius Thomas feels like he’s “in a good comfort zone.”

Will the Patriots make any big moves this week?

Said North Carolina QB Mitchell Trubisky of visiting the Jets, “They seemed like they were interested, but it’s hard to tell with all these coaches and teams.”

The Ravens would like to boost their pass rush.

Will the Bengals draft a cornerback?

Discussing the possibility of the Browns drafting Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer.

A look at cornerbacks that may appeal to the Steelers.

The Texans are expected to pick a quarterback.

Ranking past Colts drafts from best to worst.

Running through the risks and rewards of the Jaguars drafting LSU RB Leonard Fournette.

Is another offensive lineman on tap for the Titans in the first round?

Broncos LB Von Miller hit up Coachella this weekend.

Will the Chiefs court more controversy in this year’s draft?

DE Khalil Mack makes this list of the best Raiders draft picks.

Chargers players share thoughts  on the team’s schedule.

Virginia Tech QB Jerod Evans would like to follow Cowboys QB Dak Prescott’s blueprint.

The Giants could look to replace DT Johnathan Hankins in the draft.

Cornerback options exist for the Eagles in the draft.

Day two draft picks will be big for the Redskins.

The Bears could take a defensive back with the third pick.

There are defensive end options for the Lions to consider in the draft.

Letting G T.J. Lang leave as a free agent was business as usual for the Packers.

The Vikings could use some new receiving options.

The Falcons are comfortable with DT Dontari Poe’s weight.

The Panthers didn’t do well in a poll of Mexican NFL fans.

If the Saints are going to make a trade for CB Malcolm Butler, it will probably be coming soon.

Will the Buccaneers use Noah Spence at outside linebacker?

Some cautionary advice about overworking Cardinals RB David Johnson.

Rams WR Mike Thomas explains the significance of his jersey number.

Scouting potential partners for Navorro Bowman at linebacker for the 49ers.

Is Washington S Budda Baker a fit for the Seahawks defense?

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Bruce Allen says he met privately with Chris Cooley, Scot McCloughan

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One of the odd things that happened as Washington fired G.M. Scot McCloughan this offseason was that Chris Cooley, a former Washington tight end who now works for the team and for a Dan Snyder-owned radio station, speculated on the air that McCloughan was drinking, and it was affecting his job. Even odder was that the team never responded to that allegation, and never acknowledged that it was inappropriate for Cooley to speculate like that.

But team president Bruce Allen tells the Washington Post that he told Cooley privately, with McCloughan present, that the comments were inappropriate.

So why didn’t Allen say so publicly? He says he just doesn’t have the time to shoot down everything said on the radio that isn’t correct.

“There was someone who said on the radio that there was jealousy. Then, there was somebody who said we were trading Kirk Cousins for Tony Romo and giving the Cowboys draft picks. Then Chris said what he said. Then somebody said ‘X, Y and Z.’ I can’t keep up with sports-talk radio; I don’t ever want to keep up with sports-talk radio. If I had Twitter, maybe I would say, ‘This is false! This is false! This is false!’ . . . Every time somebody throws something against the wall to speculate, we’re not going to respond to all that. That’s what the media does. It’s impossible to answer all of the foolishness that’s out there,” Allen said.

Of course Allen can’t be expected to respond to every single thing that’s said on sports talk radio. But this wasn’t just any old thing. This was a guy who works for the team speculating that alcoholism was affecting the team’s G.M. That would have been a time for the team president to speak up. Allen didn’t.

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Bill Parcells is glad Tony Romo retired

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Hall of Fame head coach Bill Parcells declined all media requests in the aftermath of the decision of former Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo to walk away from football. Parcells has now broken his silence.

I was glad he retired,” Parcells told Gary Myers of the New York Daily News. “Enough is enough. You got to know, this is hazardous to your health.”

Parcells, who added that he wishes tight end Jason Witten had retired, discovered Romo in 2003 as an undrafted player for whom former Cowboys assistant and current Saints coach Sean Payton stood on the table.

But it was more than finding Romo. Parcells also developed the former Eastern Illinois quarterback.

“I really believe I handled him the right way when he was young,” Parcells said. “If I had thrown him in there, it would have been tough. He was indiscriminant. It took a while. When we got [Vinny] Testaverde down there [in 2004], it was a big help to Tony. Vinny was very meticulous, very studious, very professional in his training and his weight lifting. Tony got to see that.”

In 2006, Romo supplanted Drew Bledsoe as the starter, a job Romo held until a back injury last August opened the door for Romo to be supplanted by Dak Prescott.

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Cowboys corner Anthony Brown truly has a chip on his shoulder

Cowboys cornerback Anthony Brown is using his draft status as motivation.

But it appears a bunch of internet commenters have left him a little ruffled.

Via the Dallas Morning News and their intrepid band of screenshotters, Cowboys cornerback Anthony Brown briefly shared on social media a picture of his new tattoo, a potato chip with a 189 underneath it.

That’s in honor of his overall draft position last year (the sixth round), but it’s hard to imagine what he expected people were going to do with that.

He eventually deleted it, and joked that the response was overwhelming.

Whether the former Purdue cornerback makes an impression in the NFL or not, he guaranteed himself a lifetime of salty trash-talk.

And the first time he gets beaten long early in a game, some wide receiver is going to say “Bet I can’t beat just one.”

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Millions still in dispute between Patriots, Aaron Hernandez

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The death of former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez concludes all criminal cases against him. The various cases arising from his NFL contract eventually will resume.

Per multiple sources, the NFL and NFL Players Association previously agreed to put any grievances on hold until all criminal prosecution of Hernandez ends.

The issues to eventually be resolved include: (1) Hernandez’s demand for the remaining $3.25 million from his 2012 signing bonus; (2) the grievance filed by the NFL and Patriots seeking repayment of all money given to Hernandez until the 2012 contract; and (3) a grievance filed by Hernandez and the NFLPA for his guaranteed salary in 2013 and 2014 and a 2014 guaranteed workout bonus. (The third grievance was dismissed without prejudice but can be re-filed.)

The Patriots pin their case primarily on the notion that Hernandez allegedly committed two murders before signing the 2012 contract. Hernandez’s argument arises from the notion that he earned the payments, and that the Patriots cut him immediately after he was arrested for killing Odin Lloyd, instead of waiting for the league to suspend him.

Any money ultimately paid to Hernandez’s estate may not remain there for very long. Wrongful death cases have been filed by the estates of Odin Lloyd, Daniel de Abreu, and Safiro Furtado. Even though Hernandez was acquitted of killing de Abreu and Furtado, a lower standard of proof could result in a finding of civil liability.

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Taylor Gabriel signs one-year tender offer with Falcons

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Falcons receiver Taylor Gabriel won’t be going anywhere.

As he was expected to do, Gabriel has signed his one-year, $2.81 million tender offer to stay with the Falcons. Gabriel was a restricted free agent, meaning any team could have signed him, but the Falcons could have matched any offer, and that team would have given the Falcons a second-round draft pick.

The Browns made the Browns-like decision to cut Gabriel last year and the Falcons picked him up and immediately benefited, getting 35 catches for 579 yards and six touchdowns out of Gabriel.

In 2018 Gabriel will become an unrestricted free agent if he doesn’t first sign an extension with the Falcons.

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Chiefs cut Jaye Howard

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Last year, the Chiefs signed defensive lineman Jaye Howard to a two-year, $10 million contract, with $8.3 million guaranteed. This year, Howard is out.

The Chiefs released Howard today, while still owing him a guaranteed $2.5 million of that contract. If another team signs Howard, the offset in his contract allows the Chiefs to deduct his 2017 salary from the amount they still owe him.

Howard played in eight games last year, starting four, before going on injured reserve with a hip injury. There’s been no recent word on the status of his hip, but the Chiefs may doubt he’ll be able to return to the form they got from him in 2015, when he played in all 16 games with 13 starts and 5.5 sacks.

The 28-year-old Howard entered the NFL as a fourth-round pick of the Seahawks in 2012. He played in Seattle as a rookie and then was waived before his second season and picked up by the Chiefs.

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Durability concerns could drag down John Ross

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A Combine record of 4.22 seconds in the 40-yard dash may not propel John Ross to the top of the draft, after all.

NFL Network draft expert Mike Mayock said Friday that injury concerns have caused teams either to downgrade the Washington receiver or to remove him from consideration.

“There are some teams that have pushed him either down their boards or off their boards because of injuries,” Mayock said, via NFL.com. “He’s had surgery on his shoulder, he’s had surgery on both knees, and he’s got a small frame. So the durability is a big issue with him right now.”

Of course, it doesn’t matter if most teams take him from the draft board. If at least two think of him highly — and if they’re willing to assume the risk that he’ll be injured on a regular basis or out of football sooner than expected — his draft stock will remain high.

For his part, Mayock still regards Ross as a first-round talent, who can immediately help as a receiver and a return specialist. Many others still see Ross as a sure-fire top-15 pick.

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DeShone Kizer: It was a comment I made and I stand by it

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Former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer initially said he was taken out of context when he was quoted comparing himself to Tom Brady and Cam Newton, but Kizer now says he stands by what he said.

Kizer was asked about the comments on NBCSN during Notre Dame’s spring game, and he confirmed that those comments were an accurate representation of how he views himself.

“When you decide to play a game like this you’re going to try to model yourself after the greatest. It was a comment I made and I’m going to stand by it,” Kizer said.

Kizer said he doesn’t see any reason he shouldn’t aim to be the kind of quarterback Brady and Newton are.

“Why play this game if you don’t want to be the greatest?” Kizer said.

Kizer is hoping to hear his name called on Thursday night in the first round of the NFL draft, although his stock has seemed to slip a bit in the pre-draft process, and he may have to wait until the second or third round to hear his name called.

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Former 49ers third-round pick Glen Coffee comes out of retirement

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Glen Coffee, a running back who retired from the 49ers after just one year in the NFL, is trying to make a comeback.

Coffee, the 49ers’ third-round draft pick in 2009, has filed the necessary paperwork to get back in the league. The 49ers placed him on waivers, meaning a team that wants to give him a look can claim him now. If no one claims him he becomes an unrestricted free agent.

The 29-year-old Coffee initially said after retiring that he would go into the ministry, then enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2013 and served for four years.

Now he’s hoping for another chance. He’s a long shot, given how long he’s been away, but a player with the talent to be a third-round pick ought to at least get a tryout from some team. Coffee may be in training camp this year after a seven-year absence.

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The Aaron Hernandez smear campaign apparently has begun

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On the heels of former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez committing suicide and at the outset of an effort by his family and lawyers to ask tough and pointed questions about it, someone in law enforcement has decided to begin leaking inflammatory allegations about Hernandez. And multiple media outlets are embracing it.

We weren’t going to write about the Newsweek report that Hernandez was bisexual; that he left a suicide note for his “prison boyfriend” and that Hernandez may have killed Odin Lloyd to conceal that Hernandez was involved in an intimate relationship with a man. Hernandez’s sexuality isn’t relevant or newsworthy, especially at this point.

But then, as MDS and I traded emails regarding how to handle this one, the light bulb flickered: The “law enforcement sources” who are leaking this information on an anonymous basis apparently believe they are smearing Hernandez, possibly as a warning to those who plan to challenge whether prison officials failed to take steps aimed at preventing Hernandez from committing suicide.

If Hernandez was motivated to kill Lloyd because Lloyd was going to “out” Hernandez, wouldn’t that have come up at some point between the discovery of Lloyd’s body in June 2013 and the conviction of Hernandez for the killing in April 2015? The biggest weakness in the Lloyd murder (other than the failure to discover the murder weapon) was the absence of a clear motive.

So now law enforcement sources claim anonymously that this was the motive, even though over the past four years there had never been a hint that this was the motive?

Regardless of the true motive for leaking this information about Hernandez, it’s shameful that law enforcement sources are doing it, and those reporting it merit criticism and scrutiny. This isn’t about having sympathy for the murderer; this is about family members who are trying to get to the truth and who now have to brace for any and every kind of ugly accusation to be leaked to Newsweek or other publications if they dare to ask too many tough and pointed questions about the circumstances surrounding Hernandez’s death.

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