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NFL morning after: A great time for great quarterbacks

kaepernick AP

The NFL is, more than ever before, a quarterback league. And we’ve got some great ones playing in these playoffs.

If the wild card weekend taught us anything, it’s that the NFL in 2014 is dominated by quarterbacks. When quarterbacks are playing great football, like Andrew Luck and Alex Smith played in Indianapolis on Saturday, the results are spectacular. When quarterbacks are playing badly, like Andy Dalton played in Cincinnati on Sunday, the result is a team with no chance to win, even when its defense plays well.

The good news for fans who like offense is that next weekend’s four games have what may be the best quarterback matchups in NFL history. Just think about how good the quarterbacks are in the four divisional round games:

Philip Rivers vs. Peyton Manning: Manning will win the fifth Most Valuable Player award of his career for his record-breaking 2013 season, and he’s the best passer in football. But after Manning, the next-best passer in the NFL over the course of the 2013 season was Rivers. Rivers completed a league-leading 69.5 percent of his passes in the regular season, had 32 touchdowns to 11 interceptions and took a team that looked before the season like one of the worst in the NFL to the playoffs. This will be a great matchup of great passers.

Andrew Luck vs. Tom Brady: Luck threw for 443 yards and four touchdowns as he got the first postseason win of his career on Saturday, and now he’ll travel to New England and face Brady, who has 17 career postseason wins. If the Colts can pull the upset, this could be a changing of the guard: The quarterback who has three Super Bowl rings giving way to a much younger quarterback who’s probably going to win multiple Super Bowl rings before his career is over.

Drew Brees vs. Russell Wilson: Brees topped 5,000 passing yards for the fourth time in his career this season; no one else has reached 5,000 yards more than once. Wilson, who grew up idolizing Brees, may be the most exciting player to enter the NFL in recent years: He scrambles like Fran Tarkenton and has a gun like John Elway.

Colin Kaepernick vs. Cam Newton: This is the one that has me the most excited because it’s the one that has the greatest potential to show us what the future of football will be. Running quarterbacks are here to stay, and in Kaepernick and Newton we have the two best running quarterbacks in football facing off. Kaepernick has two of the three best rushing performances by a quarterback in NFL postseason history, with his 181-yard game against Green Bay last year and his 98-yard game against Green Bay on Sunday. Newton led all quarterbacks in rushing in the regular season, with 585 yards, and he’s the all-time quarterback record holder for rushing touchdowns in a season.

Quarterback matchups don’t get any better than that, and that’s what I’m most excited about heading into the divisional weekend. Here are my observations from wild card weekend:

There were no 100-yard rushers. The flip side of the NFL being a league of great quarterbacks is that the running game has been de-emphasized. There wasn’t a single 100-yard runner in the NFL this weekend. In fact, it was a quarterback, Kaepernick, who led all runners in the wild card round with his 98-yard game against the Packers. Running backs just aren’t the NFL’s marquee players anymore.

Smith had a game like no other. Until Saturday, no player in NFL history had ever passed for 350 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions and added 50 yards on the ground in any game, regular season or postseason. But Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith became the first player to do it on Saturday when he passed for 378 yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions, and added 57 rushing yards. Quarterbacks shouldn’t be judged on wins and losses: When a quarterback plays the way Smith played on Saturday and leads his team to 44 points, he shouldn’t be judged harshly just because his team’s defense gave up 45 points. But the reality is that quarterbacks are judged on wins and losses, and so a lot of people will choose to remember that Smith overthrew an open Cyrus Gray on what could have been a touchdown pass, that Smith lost a fumble and that Smith’s intentional grounding penalty took the Chiefs out of field goal range late in the game. Me, I’ll remember that Smith turned in the game of his life.

Hilton stepped up in a big way. T.Y. Hilton, who became the Colts’ No. 1 receiver by default after Reggie Wayne suffered a season-ending injury, had the best game of his career and one of the best games anyone has ever had in the playoffs on Saturday. Hilton’s 13 catches were tied for the second most in NFL postseason history, and his 224 receiving yards were tied for the third most in NFL postseason history. The Colts were very wise to take Hilton in the third round of the 2012 NFL draft, the same draft in which they selected Andrew Luck. Those two are going to be a great combination for many years to come.

Two big changes for the Saints panned out. After the Saints’ Week 15 loss to the Rams, New Orleans coach Sean Payton decided he had seen enough of struggling kicker Garrett Hartley and left tackle Charles Brown. And so the Saints cut Hartley and signed Shayne Graham to take his place, and benched Brown and promoted rookie left tackle Terron Armstead to the starting lineup. Both moves looked very good in Saturday’s playoff win over the Eagles. Graham went 4-for-4 on field goals, while Armstead held his own against the Eagles’ pass rush and helped keep Drew Brees upright. Give Payton credit for recognizing two spots on his team that needed to get better, and making the necessary changes.

McCoy couldn’t get loose. During the regular season, Eagles running back LeSean McCoy led the league in rushing yards and yards from scrimmage, averaged 5.1 yards a run and 10.4 yards a catch, and had 17 different plays of 20 yards or more. Against the Saints on Saturday, McCoy averaged just 3.7 yards a run and 3.8 yards a catch, and his longest play of the day was 11 yards. The ability of Rob Ryan’s New Orleans defense to keep McCoy in check was a huge part of the Eagles’ season ending on Saturday.

Lewis can build a defense, but he can’t build a quarterback. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis has a well-earned reputation as a great defensive mind, and his defense was strong on Sunday, holding a good San Diego offense in check for most of the game. Unfortunately, Lewis has Andy Dalton as his quarterback, and Dalton was beyond terrible on Sunday, with three turnovers that pretty much handed the game to the Chargers. Lewis may need to sign or draft another quarterback this offseason because Dalton simply isn’t up to the task.

Keenan Allen plays the game the way it’s meant to be played. Allen, the rookie receiver who led the Chargers with 1,046 receiving yards, only had two catches for 21 yards on Sunday. So why am I singling Allen out for praise? Because I love the way this young man plays the game, even when he’s not getting the ball. Allen’s brutal but legal block to spring teammate Eddie Royal on a nine-yard run was my single favorite play of the weekend.

TV is better than being there. Three of the four teams that hosted games over the weekend had trouble selling out their stadiums, and no one should be surprised by that. The truth is, if you have an HD TV and a comfortable couch, sitting at home and watching the games for free is a lot better than paying a small fortune to sit in an uncomfortable stadium, often in terrible weather, surrounded by loudmouth drunks. I don’t blame the fans in Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Green Bay who were slow to sell out their stadiums last week, and if anything surprises me, it’s that Philadelphia fans sold out their stadium within minutes of the Eagles putting playoff tickets for sale. If I lived in Philadelphia, I would have much rather been at home on Saturday afternoon, watching that great Chiefs-Colts second half, than in my car fighting traffic on my way to the game. And I would have rather been at home to watch my team lose to the Saints than sit in the cold on Saturday night. The best place to watch football is at home.

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Report: LSU’s Jalen Collins has multiple failed drug tests

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Timing is everything in life.

And if you’re a fringe first-round prospect, having bad news emerge in the week before the 2015 NFL Draft is particularly poorly timed.

Via Albert Breer of the NFL Network, citing sources with four teams, LSU cornerback Jalen Collins had “multiple failed tests” for drugs during his college days.

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily have to ruin his prospects, as a former teammate with a similar rap sheet has gone on to have a productive and positive start to his career.

But teams will also have to weigh his ability at a coveted position against the possibility that he might not be able to keep himself eligible.

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Greg Hardy has to abandon his Bentley on a flooded street

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When it rains, it pours.

Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy capped off a memorable first full week of work in Dallas by having to abandon his Bentley when flood-waters rose around it.

According to WFAA, the Bentley was ditched near the intersection of Interstate 35 and Continental Avenue. Hardy returned to take some personal items from the car, but declined comment on anything to the news crew, before leaving in a white Ferrari while the Bentley was being pulled from the water.

Of course, this was the same day he was involved in a verbal altercation with a teammate while working out, an incident that escalated when defensive tackle Davon Coleman made reference to the domestic violence which led to his 10-game suspension.

So yeah, he’s had better weeks.

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Roger Goodell says both Los Angeles stadium projects look good

Roger Goodell AP

St. Louis officials might have felt good about what they told the NFL this week.

But NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said that not one but two Los Angeles projects are also appealing to the league, based on what he’s seen of both stadium plans.

Speaking to the Associated Press Sports Editors Friday, Goodell said both the Inglewood site being planned by Rams owner Stan Kroenke and the Carson location being proposed for the Chargers and Raiders were both “viable” and have a “great deal of potential to be successful.”

We had presentations earlier this week that are very exciting,” Goodell said, via Barry Wilner of the Associated Press. “Not just for a return but to continue being successful going forward.”

He also suggested the timetable is accelerating, with the currently January 2016 window for applying for relocation could be moving up.

Goodell said he thought the St. Louis group was making progress, though it’s unclear if it’s too late to keep the Rams, as Kroenke has practically placed shovels next to the ground ready to move dirt in Inglewood.

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NFL moves on from ATC spotters with team affiliations

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The ATC spotter charged with scanning the field for evidence of players in distress now has unprecedented power:  The ability to stop the game and direct the officials to remove a player for further evaluation.

Given the potential for that power to be abused through, for example, the erroneous perception that a quarterback needs to be removed from the game for evaluation on a key play late in the game, the NFL has decided to ensure that the ATC spotters have the appearance of independence.

According to the league office, any ATC spotter who has worked as an athletic trainer at any time for a team or who has been employed by any NFL team within the prior 20 years was relieved of their duties on Friday.

“It was done to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest with the new safety rule change regarding the medical timeout that was passed last month,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarth told PFT by email.

While that amounted to only 12 of the 64 spotters, the 12 presumably aren’t happy.  One of the 12, who requested anonymity, expressed strong disagreement with the move.

“It’s sad to me that the NFL overreacts in this way, so as to put people who are much less able to know what’s going on down on the field (since they’ve never been there, as an Athletic Training Intern, ATC, or otherwise) and are going to be calling and stopping play for things that are not necessary,” the now-former ATC spotter said.

The move underscores the unprecedented authority that the ATC spotter will have, along with the league’s ongoing responsibility to ensure that it’s exercised properly.  It also arguably underscores the need for ensuring that potential conflicts of interest be avoided for other league employees with influence on the game — an issue with which Patriots fans have become acutely familiar in the wake of the #DeflateGate scandal.

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Norv Turner tells Bridgewater doubters where to stick their brooms

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A year ago, when the Vikings drafted Teddy Bridgewater in the first round of the NFL draft, there were plenty of doubts. After Bridgewater’s lousy Pro Day workout, some around the NFL believed he simply lacked the physical tools to become a franchise quarterback.

A year later, after Bridgewater showed a lot of promise as a rookie, the Vikings are feeling pretty good about their pick, and Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner is taking shots at those who doubted Bridgewater. Noting that one of the drills Bridgewater struggled with at his Pro Day involved throwing passes over upraised brooms, Turner said anyone who downgraded Bridgewater over that is a fool.

“Someone should take those brooms and shove them up someone’s backside,” Turner told ESPN.

Turner’s son Scott Turner, the Vikings’ quarterbacks coach, said Bridgewater made up for his poor Pro Day with a good private workout with the Vikings, and that alleviated any concerns.

“We didn’t think he put forth his best effort on his Pro Day, but we weren’t sounding alarms like the whole world was at the time,” Scott Turner said. “That [private] workout answered those questions for us, positively.”

A whole lot of teams are now wishing they hadn’t dropped Bridgewater on their boards just because he couldn’t throw over a broom.

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Unnamed scout on Kevin White: “He’s like Larry Fitzgerald”

TCU West Virginia Football AP

West Virginia wide receiver Kevin White is just about a lock to hear his name called in the first round of next week’s draft, with all but the matter of whether he’ll be the first player at his position to be taken to be decided.

In his latest mock draft, Rotoworld’s Josh Norris projected the Mountaineers star to come off the board at No. 7 to Chicago, calling White one of “a handful of foundation pieces in this draft.”

As a senior at West Virginia, the 6-foot-3, 215-pound White hauled in 109 passes for 1,447 yards and 10 touchdowns. He then proceeded to run an impressive 4.35 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine.

White also received some high praise in Nolan Nawrocki’s 2015 NFL Draft Preview. In White’s scouting report, Nawrocki quoted an unnamed scout who called the West Virginia receiver “the top player in the East hands down.”

Said the unnamed scout: “He is the reason they are in every game. He’s like Larry Fitzgerald.”

On PFT Live in March, White said Fitzgerald, the Cardinals’ star receiver, had given him good advice about competing in the NFL.

“He’s kind of like my mentor, somebody that I look up to that’s in the NFL,” White said.

The No. 3 overall pick 11 years ago, Fitzgerald has had a stellar career, one that figures to garner him serious Hall of Fame consideration. If White is in the same ballpark as Fitzgerald in terms of impact, some club is going to be very happy to have turned in a card with his name on it next Thursday in Chicago.

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Winston initially kept crab leg incident from Harbaugh, Fisch

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The primary headline this week regarding quarterback Jameis Winston arose from his about-face regarding the notion that he shoplifted crab legs from a grocery store in 2014.  Setting aside for now the question of whether Winston’s latest version of the events is accurate (Deadspin has made a persuasive case that it isn’t), there’s more to the story.

Specifically, there’s more to the story of how the story emerged.  Specifically, Winston initially omitted the story about the crab legs when generally asked about getting in trouble in the past.

In the episode of ESPN’s Draft Academy during which Winston provided an alternative version of the crab-leg caper, Winston and quarterback Bryce Petty met with Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and Michigan offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch as part of the preparation process for interviews at the Scouting Combine.

Harbaugh at one point asked Winston, “Any discipline when you were in high school?”

“Yes sir,” Winston said.  “I was disciplined for one game against John Carroll for laughing at my coach ’cause he cried, and he felt that I disrespected him.”

“What about in college?” Harbaugh said.

“In college, I got disciplined for a game against Clemson for standing up on a table and saying something wrong,” Winston said.  “That’s the only time I got disciplined in college.”

“Any encounters with the police?” Harbaugh said.

Winston then explained the incident involving a BB gun fight while hunting squirrels.

“The police had rolled up on us and thought I had an assault rifle,” Winston said.

Winston said nothing about the crab legs, for which he was cited for shoplifting and suspended from the Florida State baseball team.  Fisch pointed out the failure to mention the crab legs, and Winston reacted as if he’d forgotten about it.

“That’s like the elephant in the room for you,” Fisch said.  “I mean, everyone’s going to want to know what happened.  So don’t like by accident only talk about the BB gun and your high school coach crying and forget about the fact that everybody on SportsCenter read about that incident.  Because then it looks like you’re covering it up or you’re hiding it.”

“I screwed up, I f–ked up,” Harbaugh suggested as a quick way to deal with the situation.  “I f–ked up, learned from it.  You know, be serious as a heart attack.”

Then the alternative story emerged.

“How am I supposed to handle like if I just got them for free?” Winston said.

And that’s when Winston offered up the same version that he undoubtedly later gave to anyone from the NFL who asked him the question at the Scouting Combine or elsewhere.

For teams that already have decided that they’re comfortable with Winston, this surely won’t change their minds.  For teams that already have decided they’re not, it definitely won’t.  But for anyone still on the fence, maybe it will have an impact.

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Ray Rice tells Rutgers football players to “not make the mistakes that I made”

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Before Rutgers held its spring football game Friday night, a prominent former Scarlet Knights star addressed the team:

Ray Rice.

Rice, the former Ravens running back who has been out of the NFL since being released by the Ravens in September, told Steve Politi of New Jersey Advance Media he wanted to give the current Rutgers players some life advice.

“I just shot them straight. I’m sure if you speak to them, they’ll give you a lot better explanation of what I told them, but I gave them the message to go out there and not make the mistakes that I made,” Rice told Politi. “If I can help them understand, then I’ve made an impact. It costs no money to give them a good message like that.”

Rice was released by Baltimore after video surfaced of him striking his now-wife in an Atlantic City elevator. Rutgers coach Kyle Flood, who asked Rice to talk to his players, told New Jersey Advance Media the former star running back had some valuable knowledge to share.

” . . . Ray made the wrong decision, and he’s held himself accountable to it, and he’s paid the price for it, and I thought today was an opportunity for him to deliver a message to try to prevent one of our young people doing that in the future,” Flood told Politi.

Rice rushed for nearly 5,000 yards in just three seasons at Rutgers and is the school’s all-time leading rusher.

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Irsay says it’s not “Super Bowl or bust” for Pagano

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Last month, a report emerged that the Colts and coach Chuck Pagano aren’t expected to strike a new deal before the final year of his contract expires.  Owner Jim Irsay has remained silent, fueling speculation that Pagano could be on the outs if the team doesn’t get to the Super Bowl.

Irsay has finally addressed the situation, opting to downplay the situation.

“These things are ongoing a lot of times behind the scenes,” Irsay said Friday night at a charity gala to support Pagano’s efforts to raise funds to fight cancer, via Stephen Holder of the Indianapolis Star.  “We’re working on contracts, whether it’s management, coaches, players.  We had discussions and it doesn’t mean that they won’t continue.  It’s not a Super Bowl-or-bust season or anything like that.”

Irsay’s comments leave the door open for a new deal before the season begins.

“Really, it’s only been two years, kind of, that he’s been coaching,” Irsay said, referring to the fact that Pagano missed most of his first year with the team while fighting cancer.  “So, he’s done a very good job and nothing rules out that we couldn’t have an extension done before the season.  And if not, we can still, I’m sure, work things out.”

Irsay said talks already have occurred regarding a new contract.  And Irsay seemed to blame the lack of a new contract on Pagano’s agent.

“There were some efforts to talk about it,” Irsay said.  “We just didn’t get there.  Sometimes that happens.  If you go back to the old days, there were no agents involved, either.  Now General Managers and coaches sometimes have agents. In fact, oftentimes. . . .  We’re real positive about Chuck Pagano and the things that he’s done.  It’s not a sign of anything extremely negative.  We just haven’t gotten anything done in terms of a long-term contract.”

Irsay’s words suggest that the absence of a contract doesn’t result from his reluctance to commit to Pagano, but from Pagano’s reluctance to commit to the terms the team has offered.  Which could set the stage not for Irsay to fire Pagano but for Pagano to walk away.

If he does, the vacancy in Indianapolis, with the presence of quarterback Andrew Luck, would become the most attractive job in the 2016 hiring cycle.

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Jets safety Jaiquawn Jarrett signs RFA tender

Jaiquawn Jarrett AP

A former second-round pick of the Eagles who’s rebuilt his career with the Jets has officially re-signed with New York.

Safety Jaiquawn Jarrett, a restricted free agent, inked his one-year tender with the Jets on Friday, the club said.

The 25-year-old Jarrett started 5-of-14 games for the Jets in 2014, recording 40 tackles and intercepting two passes. Overall, he’s played 30-of-32 games with New York over the last two seasons. Jarrett will vie for playing time in a safety corps that includes 2014 first-round pick Calvin Pryor and ex-Charger Marcus Gilchrist.

A Temple product, Jarrett was the No. 54 overall selection in 2011. However, he lasted just 13 games with Philadelphia, which waived him early in the 2012 campaign. Nevertheless, Jarrett overcame that setback and earned his way back into the NFL, and he will be able to test unrestricted free agency after this season.

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Buccaneers re-sign RB Bobby Rainey

Bobby Rainey, Will Sutton AP

Running back Bobby Rainey has signed his one-year contract offer from the Buccaneers, the club said Friday afternoon.

A restricted free agent, Rainey was tendered a one-year, $1.542 million contract.

The 27-year-old Rainey has been one of the Buccaneers’ reserve tailbacks over the last two seasons. He rushed for 406 yards and racked up 315 yards receiving for Tampa Bay in 2014, appearing in 15 games (five starts). Rainey previously had stints with Baltimore and Cleveland.

Doug Martin, Charles Sims, Mike James and Rainey are the top veteran options in the backfield for Tampa Bay. A three-year starter, Martin has struggled to regain top form after a promising rookie season.

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Eagles withdraw restricted free agent offer to Chris Polk

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Friday is the final day for restricted free agents to solicit offers from other teams, but that won’t stop running back Chris Polk from talking to teams other than the Eagles.

Polk was tendered at the original round level by the Eagles, which gave them the right to match any outside bid for Polk’s services. Polk didn’t sign his tender and didn’t sign an offer sheet with anyone else, but the league’s daily transaction report for Friday shows that the Eagles have withdrawn their $1.54 million tender offer for Polk’s services.

That makes Polk, who ran for 172 yards and four touchdowns last season, an unrestricted free agent who can sign with any other team at any point. That should give him an opportunity to find a home with fewer players in front of him on the depth chart as playing time in Philly figured to be sparse with DeMarco Murray, Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles on the depth chart.

Whether he’ll find that spot on a depth chart before the draft is unclear. The general consensus is that it is a deep draft for running backs and teams may opt for younger backs before considering adding Polk to the mix.

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St. Louis stadium leaders optimistic about their efforts

Dave Peacock, Bob Blitz AP

The group trying to build a new stadium in St. Louis had a chance to pitch their plan to the NFL this week, and they apparently think it went well.

Stadium task force leader David Peacock said he was encouraged by the feedback he got from the league, as they try to build something that will either keep the Rams or attract another team if Stan Kroenke takes his to California.

We’re going to continue down the path we’re on,” Peacock told the Associated Press. “There was nothing coming out of this meeting to make us change course.”

Peacock and Robert Blitz didn’t get into many of the specifics of their 40-minute presentation, saying they showed league officials revised stadium plans and a video presentation about the $1 billion project.

Of course, there’s also the small matter of coming up with that money, as Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon believes they can extend the bonds funding the Edward Jones Dome (i.e. public money) to pay up to $400 million, with seat licenses representing another $150 million. That leaves around $450 million for the league and Kroenke to come up with.

Of course, Kroenke seems intent on spending his money in Inglewood instead, so the civic effort in St. Louis might be pitching that plan to someone else.

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Report: Chiefs exercise 2016 option on Dontari Poe’s contract

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When MDS ran through the pending fifth-year team options for 2012, he listed Chiefs defensive tackle Dontari Poe as one of the players who would have their options exercised.

It seems the Chiefs agree with his assessment of the situation. Albert Breer of NFL Media reports that the Chiefs have picked up the option on the fifth year of Poe’s rookie deal, which will pay him a little more than $6 million.

Poe has been a starter since the moment the Chiefs picked him with the 11th overall pick of the draft and he’s been an impact player for just about the same period of time. He’s made the Pro Bowl in each of the last two seasons while racking up 10.5 sacks and providing Kansas City with a lot of push in the middle of the defensive line.

The Chiefs and Poe can work on a long-term contract between now and the expiration of the deal at the end of the 2016 season. That deal should be a lucrative one based on what Poe’s done in his first three years and doing so would allow the Chiefs to avoid the franchise tag headaches they’re experiencing with Justin Houston this offseason.

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Lions talking extension with DeAndre Levy, waiting to talk to Haloti Ngata

Haloti Ngata AP

Lions president Tom Lewand said early this month that and linebacker DeAndre Levy had yet to open up contract negotiations and, as a result, he couldn’t say whether the team’s talks with Levy would extend past the start of training camp.

Lewand should have a better idea of the timing the next time he addresses Levy’s contract situation. General Manager Martin Mayhew said Friday that the team has opened up talks with Levy. There wasn’t any characterization of the talks beyond “ongoing,” which means they’re further along than talks with defensive tackle Haloti Ngata.

Ngata is set to become a free agent after next season, but Mayhew said that the team wants to give Ngata time to settle after the March trade that brought him to Detroit.

“I think they know we have an interest in doing something,” Mayhew said, via ESPN.com. “And I think we know they have an interest in doing something, but he just got here for his offseason program. Letting him get comfortable, get situated, and at some point we’ll start that dialogue.”

Mayhew also touched on safety James Ihedigbo’s absence from voluntary workouts, saying he understood from his own playing career the veteran’s feeling that he’s underpaid and deserving of a new deal. There wasn’t much sign about whether the Lions were amenable to giving him one, which leaves that as another situation to monitor as the offseason continues to unfold in Detroit.

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