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Wes Welker returns to Broncos practice

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It wasn’t Santa Claus with a sleigh filled with goodies, but the Broncos did have some very welcome faces at practice on Wednesday.

Joan Niesen of the Denver Post reports that wide receiver Wes Welker participated in practice for the first time since suffering a concussion against the Titans on December 8th. It’s unclear whether he’ll play in the season finale against the Raiders, but getting back on the practice field is a good sign about his progress through the league’s concussion protocol.

Defensive end Derek Wolfe also returned to practice for the Broncos, marking his first time back on the field since he fell ill on the team bus on the way to the airport to travel to Kansas City in November. Cornerback Kayvon Webster completed the trio of Christmas returnees as he made it back to the field after breaking his thumb two weeks ago. He hopes to play this week with a cast on his right hand.

The release of the Broncos practice report will reveal how much work they did on Wednesday, although it’s a good bet that they’ll be limited. Whatever they could do, having them back now should help make sure they’re ready to go when the playoffs roll around.

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Bengals credit Vontaze Burfict for losing weight this offseason

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Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict is coming off his first healthy offseason in three years, and he made the most of his ability to work out in the spring.

The Bengals’ coaches asked Burfict to report to camp slimmed down and in better shape, and he’s drawing praise because for doing exactly that. Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said Burfict has gone from the 260s to the 240s and looks better as a result.

“He’s probably in the high 240s. He’s played at 260, 265. He’s moving good,” Guenther said, via Katherine Terrell of ESPN. “I told him it’ll add three years to your career if you stay at that level. He can be just as physical at 245, 250 as he can be at 265.”

Burfict is heading into the last year of his contract and will make a $3.75 million salary this year, after collecting a $200,000 workout bonus for the offseason. Up next, he hopes, is a big 2017 that makes him a prized free agent in 2018.

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Mike Pouncey emotional talking about “brother” Aaron Hernandez

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Not everyone had sympathy when Aaron Hernandez’s life ended by suicide in his jail cell.

But Dolphins center Mike Pouncey has never been shy about his feelings for his friend and former college teammate, and became emotional Thursday when discussing the former Patriots tight end who was serving a life sentence for murder at the time.

“It was tough,” Pouncey said, via Adam Beasley of the Miami Herald. “Obviously, I don’t condone any of the things that he was accused of, but just to have a friend I was so close with, that I felt like was my brother and I know that he felt the same way, it’s tough. It’s tough for anyone to have a loss in their family, but that one right there hit my and my brother really hard.”

Hernandez wasn’t simply accused, he was convicted of murdering Odin Lloyd, though he had just been acquitted in a separate double-murder trial days before his death. Pouncey said the last time he talked to Hernandez, his friend was in “great spirits.”

“Just, you know, about the case that he had just won,” Pouncey said. “He was excited, ready to fight the first one again. Just a lot of different stuff. Happy for him.

“It was just tough, man. . . . We’re still shocked to this day that we’re even at this point.”

As difficult as it is for some to imagine, it’s evident that Pouncey never backed away from his friend, when many did all they could to distance themselves from Hernandez.

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John Harbaugh: Ravens will add a QB, maybe Kaepernick

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Of all the teams that could be a match for quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the Ravens make the most sense. The brother of their head coach, John Harbaugh, coached Kaepernick in San Francisco, and still raves about him. Their Senior Offensive Assistant (and possible offensive coordinator in waiting), Greg Roman, served as offensive coordinator in San Francisco when Kaepernick played as well as ever.

And the Ravens could indeed sign him.

Via multiple Twitter accounts of reporters at practice, Harbaugh said the Ravens plan to add a quarterback, and he didn’t rule out Kaepernick.

Jeff Zrebiec of the Baltimore Sun notes that Harbaugh said it all “depends on what Kaepernick wants to do.” Harbaugh also said that the Ravens have been talking to Kaepernick throughout the summer.

This suggests that the outcome hinges on whether Kaepernick would take whatever money the Ravens have budgeted for the position. If he does, he’ll have a job. And a chance to supplant Ryan Mallet as the No. 2 guy on the roster. And an opportunity to be in position to play if Joe Flacco’s back injury is something more than a minor inconvenience.

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Owa Odighizuwa at Giants training camp

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Giants defensive end Owa Odighizuwa created some uncertainty about his football future this offseason when he announced he needed some time away from the game in April before showing up for some of the team’s offseason workouts.

Odighizuwa did not take part in the team’s minicamp in June after being excused for personal reasons, which created more doubt about what he was going to do during the 2017 season. Odighizuwa apparently wants to play.

Giants coach Ben McAdoo said on Thursday that Odighizuwa reported to training camp and will presumably be trying to hold onto his role as a backup on the defensive line. He played in 14 games last season and saw 169 snaps on defense. Romeo Okwara, Devin Taylor, Kerry Wynn and fifth-round pick Avery Moss are also vying for roles behind Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon.

McAdoo said all players on the roster reported for camp, although running back Shaun Draughn and cornerback Valentino Blake are not practicing after being placed on the physically unable to perform list.

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Patriots sign two with training camp underway

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The Patriots have added a couple of players to their 90-man roster with training camp underway in Foxborough.

The team announced that they have signed wide receiver Tony Washington and defensive end Caleb Kidder. They had open roster spots so did not need to make any corresponding moves to create space for the new arrivals.

Washington arrives after veteran wideout Andrew Hawkins announced his retirement this week. Washington played in six games for the Jaguars over the last two seasons and caught one pass for nine yards. The path to the final roster for Washington is an uphill one, but he’ll get a chance to put some play on film in the preseason if the Patriots don’t churn the roster again before games get underway.

Kidder signed with the Vikings as an undrafted free agent in May, but was dropped by the team in June. He had 14 sacks during his college career at the University of Montana.

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RGIII workout may have helped Chargers land Cardale Jones

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When word emerged of the Chargers working out quarterback Robert Griffin III, the motivation for it wasn’t clear. When someone with the Chargers leaked to ESPN that Griffin looked good, the motivation for it wasn’t clear. When the Chargers didn’t sign Griffin after such a supposedly good workout, the motivation for it wasn’t clear.

On Wednesday, it all became clear when the Chargers traded for quarterback Cardale Jones.

Griffin was the leverage for the Chargers in their talks with the Bills. Bringing Griffin in for a workout and leaking a positive review to ESPN made it clear to Buffalo that the Chargers had an alternative, in the event that Buffalo tried to put a thumb on the scale and get more from a guy who probably was on the way out if there hadn’t been a trade.

So why would Griffin allow himself to be used in this way? He likely didn’t know that the Chargers were trying to get Jones from the Bills. Even if Griffin had known what was happening, the workout knocked the dust off his name for the first time in months, reminding all other teams that he still exists.

Thus, it was a win-win-win. The Chargers got a quarterback they want, the Bills got rid of one they didn’t want, and Griffin got his name in circulation.

And maybe the Bills will be interested in giving Griffin his next workout. Right before they trade for someone else.

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Devontae Booker having surgery Friday, Broncos expect him for Week One

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Broncos running back Devontae Booker is set to miss time due to a wrist injury, but the team does not currently expect his absence to spill over into the regular season.

That was the word from Broncos coach Vance Joseph on Thursday during an interview with Orange and Blue 760. Joseph said that Booker will have surgery on Friday to repair what Mike Klis of KUSA reports is a fracture that was discovered when he reported lingering discomfort in the wrist from offseason workouts.

Joseph said that Booker could play without having the surgery, but fixing it now keeps it from being a “long-term” issue for the running back. He also said that Booker should be ready for the regular season given a six-week timeline to recover from the operation.

That outlook could change and the Broncos will get longer looks at rookie De’Angelo Henderson and veteran Jamaal Charles as potential complements to C.J. Anderson while Booker is recovering.

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Aaron Rodgers has rekindled “love affair” with football

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There was a time when Aaron Rodgers thought he’d be finished as a football player in his mid-30s.

But now, the Packers quarterback says he’s back to his “love affair” with the game, and that has made him want to continue on much longer than he previously thought.

“[That feeling] has kind of given me the idea that this is what I want to do. I love football, and I want to keep playing as long as possible,” Rodgers said during an interview on Wilde & Tausch on ESPN Wisconsin. “And when you have that kind of slight shift in your thinking, then you start going to, ‘How can I do that?’ And the way you can do that, in my opinion, is taking care of yourself at a hyper-sensitive level to all the areas that that entails — the rehab area, the eating area, the workout/focus area. And all those combined have kind of given me the idea that I’d like to keep playing at a high level, as fun as it is right now.”

If that sounds a little Tom Brady, it’s probably not accidental, as the two have become friends and Rodgers has taken his own steps (which don’t involve avocado ice cream) to keep himself going into his 40s.

So as the 33-year-old Rodgers enters his 13th NFL season, he’s thinking more long-term, and appreciating the game more than he has before.

“I think it’s a change, a slight change that happened the last few years, where it really has become just a love affair,” Rodgers said. “From [being] a game I always enjoyed playing and enjoyed competing and am hyper-competitive [in] to just really loving the process even more — the practice, the preparation, just enjoying those moments even more.”

Of course, this love story might not include the kind of paparazzi treatment previous relationships have led Rodgers into, but it will certainly make Packers fans swoon, as they imagine a long and happy marriage.

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Relatively cheap for John Urschel to retire from the Ravens

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Freshly-retired Ravens center John Urschel knows numbers. And it doesn’t take an advanced degree in mathematics to figure out the numbers that apply to his decision to retire.

Urschel received a $144,560 signing bonus when joining the Ravens in 2014. The bonus prorated at $36,140 per year. With one year left on the contract, Urschel owes the Ravens $36,140 upon retirement.

In contrast, 49ers linebacker Chris Borland owed (and repaid) $463,077 when he retired after only one season.

Borland has predicted more early retirements. Although some in the media have tried to wedge other retirements into the “early retirement due to head injuries” box, it hasn’t become a trend.

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John Urschel retires from NFL

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Offensive lineman John Urschel started 13 games for the Ravens over the last three seasons, but, in general, he has gotten more notice for his mathematical ability than his football ability.

Urschel is going to have more time to crunch numbers in the near future. The Ph.D. candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has decided to end his playing career.

“This morning John Urschel informed me of his decision to retire from football,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said in a statement. “We respect John and respect his decision. We appreciate his efforts over the past three years and wish him all the best in his future endeavors.”

Urschel did not provide a statement about his reasons, although his bright future as a mathematician would seem to be the obvious answer. In a 2015 piece he wrote for The Players Tribune, Urschel wrote about being asked why he’d play given that future and the risks inherent to life as a professional football player.

“I play because I love the game,” Urschel wrote. “I love hitting people. There’s a rush you get when you go out on the field, lay everything on the line and physically dominate the player across from you. This is a feeling I’m [for lack of a better word] addicted to, and I’m hard-pressed to find anywhere else.”

Urschel was expected to be in the mix to start at center for the Ravens, who traded last year’s starter Jeremy Zuttah to the 49ers during the offseason. Ryan Jensen and Matt Skura are the other in-house candidates in Baltimore.

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Turf problems (but not traffic problems) at Levi’s Stadium for soccer matches

The multi-purpose venue named after a company that makes multi-purpose pants has had, from time to time, problems with the turf and, supposedly, the traffic. Recent soccer matches at the stadium where the 49ers play had some of the former, none of the latter.

Via SportsBusiness Daily, more than 63,000 showed up Wednesday for the CONCACAF Gold Cup Final between the U.S. and Jamaica. Three days earlier, more than 65,000 showed up for Manchester United taking on Real Madrid. So the “traffic problems” that supposedly were keeping fans from getting to the stadium for a Thursday night game last season have been resolved. (They’ve been resolved in part because, you know, they never existed.)

As noted by SBD, John Strong of FS1 pointed out that the turf has been an issue at the venue. Stuart Holden of FS1 at one point noticed a clump of loose dirt on Wednesday night and said, “That looks like Landon [Donovan’s] nine iron right there.”

Actually, they’ve also had golf at Levi’s Stadium. Also with no traffic problems.

[Photo credit: SportsBusiness Daily.]

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Tramon Williams set to visit with Cardinals

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The Cardinals are holding an open competition for a cornerback to play across from Patrick Peterson this season and they’re spending some time with a possible veteran addition to that battle for the second time in as many days.

Ian Rapoport of NFL Media reports that Tramon Williams will visit with the team on Thursday. Brandon Flowers met with them on Wednesday.

Williams was released by the Browns in early February in a move Williams said he welcomed because of what he called an unstable environment in Cleveland during his two years with the team. As one could surmise from Williams still being available, that release was not met with a rush of suitors for his services.

Williams started 22 games over his two seasons in Cleveland and spent most of the previous seven years as a starter for the Packers. If signed, he’d compete with Justin Bethel, Brandon Williams, Harlan Miller and Jumal Rolle for time in the Arizona secondary.

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No limits on Rob Gronkowski in training camp practices

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Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski had season-ending back surgery last year, which marked the third time that he had an operation on his back and offered a reminder that Gronkowski’s health has been about the only thing to slow him down over the course of his NFL career.

As a result, the Patriots have taken it easy with him at times in past training camps in hopes of getting as much as possible out of their star tight end come the regular season. It doesn’t sound like the Patriots plan to dial things back for him on the practice field this summer, however.

Coach Bill Belichick said Thursday, via CSNNE.com, that Gronkowski “doesn’t have any limits that I know of” when it comes to his participation. Gronkowski went through the offseason program as a full participant as well, but the addition of pads and hitting at some practices could have led the team to take a different approach.

Gronkowski has not sees action in preseason games since 2012, so the team may still opt for precaution in games that don’t count in the standings and that they don’t need in order to know what Gronkowski does on the field. From a practice standpoint, however, it sounds like things are moving at full speed.

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Packers put rookie linebacker Vince Biegel on PUP list

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The Packers will start camp with a pair of players on the physically unable to perform list, and hope their stays there are short.

Via Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com, Packers coach Mike McCarthy said rookie linebacker Vince Biegel and cornerback Demetri Goodson (knee) will start camp on the PUP list.

Biegel, their fourth-round pick from Wisconsin, is coming off foot surgery in May, while Goodson is dealing with a knee injury.

McCarthy said Biegel could be back in a few weeks. That would certainly help, as they need pass-rushers and he has the opportunity to contribute early.

The good news for the Packers was that center Corey Linsley was not listed, after dealing with an ankle problem.

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Rob Ninkovich: Every team has the Patriots circled on their schedule

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Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich said he and his teammates don’t give anyone any bulletin board material, because their mere presence on the schedule is all that’s needed on the next opponent’s bulletin board.

Ninkovich said on PFT Live that he thinks every team in the NFL looks ahead to facing the Patriots, which means they’re never going to get a team on an off day.

“The Patriots — our logo is bulletin board material. Anyone that’s playing the Patriots, they have us circled on their schedule,” Ninkovich said. “So every week we’re getting everyone’s best shot.”

One player who hasn’t made any secret of the fact that he already has those games against the Patriots circled on his schedule is Dolphins receiver Jarvis Landry, who said this offseason that he’s expecting to sweep the Patriots this year.

“We’ll see what happens when we play,” Ninkovich said.

That’s about as much of a bulletin-board comment as a Patriot will make.

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