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NFL morning after: The four best teams advance

marshawn AP

Let’s be honest: That wasn’t a very good weekend of football.

Now let’s look on the bright side: That’s because the four teams we’ll watch in the conference championships on Sunday — San Francisco at Seattle in the NFC and New England at Denver in the AFC — are the four best teams in the NFL. By a lot.

The 49ers, Seahawks, Patriots and Broncos were all considered strong Super Bowl contenders heading into the season, they all went 13-3 or 12-4 during the season, they were all favored to win this weekend and they all won in convincing fashion. What we have are four superior football teams advancing to the conference championships.

That doesn’t happen every year. The Ravens were 10-6 in their Super Bowl-winning season last year. The Giants were 9-7 the year before that and the Packers 10-6 the year before that. In the NFL in the last few years, the Super Bowl hasn’t featured the best teams. It has featured the teams that got hot in the playoffs.

I like it better this way. The Seahawks and 49ers are great teams with a great rivalry. The Broncos and Patriots are great teams with two Hall of Fame quarterbacks who have battled each other for more than a decade. The combined record of the four teams still in the title hunt is 50-14, the best combined record of the final four teams in the playoffs in the last 15 years. This is what championship football should be like.

Here are my notes from the weekend:

For three quarters, the Broncos looked like the most complete team in the NFL. We all know Denver’s Peyton Manning-led passing game is great, but the Broncos were good all over the place for the first three quarters against the Chargers. Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball were a very strong 1-2 punch running the ball. Denver’s defense held a very good San Diego offense in check for most of the game. Early in the game, even the Broncos’ bad plays looked like flukes, not like major problems. But the Broncos’ fourth-quarter letdown may be a concern: A comfortable 17-0 lead turned into a closer-than-it-should-have-been 24-17 win. The Broncos will need to play well for four quarters to beat the Patriots.

LeGarrette Blount is something special. The Patriots made Blount the focal point of their offense on Saturday, and he rewarded them in a major way, carrying 24 times for 166 yards and four touchdowns. (Blount has only played in one postseason game, and he has more career postseason rushing touchdowns than Barry Sanders and Walter Payton combined.) Blount has always had a phenomenal combination of speed and power, but after a great rookie season in Tampa Bay in 2010, he was largely a forgotten man with the Bucs. Now the Patriots are getting the most out of his talents. One of the primary differences between a bad coach like Greg Schiano and a great coach like Bill Belichick is that Schiano saw Blount as a problem to get rid of, while Belichick saw Blount as an opportunity to make the most of.

Marshawn Lynch is a beast in the playoffs. Lynch has only played in five postseason games in his career, and he has topped 130 rushing yards in three of them: He had 140 yards in Sunday’s win over New Orleans, 132 yards in last year’s win over Washington, and 131 yards in Seattle’s playoff win three years ago over New Orleans, the game in which Lynch reeled off one of the greatest runs in NFL history. Only two players in NFL history — Terrell Davis with five and Thurman Thomas with four — have more 130-yard games in the playoffs than Lynch’s three.

Dan Skuta got the weakest flag of the weekend. Skuta, a 49ers linebacker, made a great play to fight through a block, hit Cam Newton and wrap him up for a sack in the fourth quarter. But the referee somehow claimed that Skuta had committed “roughing the quarterback” by hitting Newton in the head. I’m all for player safety, but the idea that a linebacker can’t tackle a quarterback the way Skuta tackled Newton is ridiculous.

The Panthers needed more from their running backs. Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams, who just finished the third season of a five-year, $43 million contract, gained 13 yards on five carries on Sunday. Carolina fullback Mike Tolbert, who just finished the second year of a four-year, $8.2 million contract, gained 20 yards on eight carries. (Running back Jonathan Stewart, who just finished the second year of a five-year, $36.5 million contract, was inactive with a knee injury.) A team that’s devoting as much salary cap space to running backs needs a lot more production from them than that. Cam Newton, who had 54 yards on 10 carries, was the only Panther who was a consistent threat on the ground.

The Trent Richardson trade was terrible. There are no two ways about it, the Colts made a huge mistake when they gave up their 2014 first-round draft pick to acquire Richardson from the Browns. Richardson ended the playoffs with four carries for a grand total of one yard, with one fumble. That’s horrific. In the regular season Richardson gave the Colts 157 carries for 458 yards, a pathetic average of 2.9 yards a carry. If Richardson can’t show significant improvement in the offseason and the 2014 preseason, can he even make the Colts’ 53-man roster next year?

The Saints’ clock management was abysmal. There will be plenty of blame to go around in New Orleans this week after the Saints’ loss at Seattle. But a big share of the blame should go to coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees, both of whom were responsible for some atrocious clock management. Twice in the fourth quarter Payton and Brees wasted timeouts because they couldn’t get the play called and the offense set in time to avoid a delay of game penalty. And Payton wasted the Saints’ final timeout challenging a Seahawks catch that was clearly ruled correctly on the field. You simply can’t waste all three of your timeouts when you’re trying to come from behind in the fourth quarter, but that’s what the Saints did.

The trumpet national anthem was awesome. Instead of famous singers who try way too hard to put their own spin on “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the Carolina Panthers got trumpeter Jesse McGuire to play the national anthem, and he was outstanding. How about bringing him back for the Super Bowl, NFL? That was an anthem fit for a great game, which this year’s Super Bowl — whether it’s the 49ers or Seahawks, Broncos or Patriots — is virtually guaranteed to be.

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Five questions: Green Bay Packers

Rodgers AP

Since winning the Super Bowl to cap the 2010 season, the Packers have made it back to the playoffs three straight years.  But they haven’t made it past the divisional round.

The ability to consistently contend is a testament to franchise quarterback Aaron Rodgers.  The inability to get with a game of the Super Bowl is an indictment of the defense.  Whether Titletown’s can get close to the title game again hinges on a few questions.

How about five of them?

Yeah, five will be good.

1.  Will Aaron Rodgers stay healthy?

For his first five years as a starter, Rodgers missed only one game, due to a concussion.  Last year, a broken collarbone derailed the team’s season and nearly cost the Packers a playoff berth.

This year, Rodgers needs to avoid a similar outcome.  Which may not be easy, with the team breaking in a new center.  The rest of the line has shown signs of encouragement, however, the Packers effectively can replace Evan Dietrich-Smith, Rodgers’ safety will depend more heavily on his ability to protect himself.  (With starting center J.C. Tretter gone for multiple weeks with a knee injury, that’ll be a challenge, at least early in the season.)

If he can, the Packers can shake things up in the NFC, starting with the first game of the regular season at Seattle.  If he can’t, they’ll need Scott Tolzien or Matt Flynn to do far better than Rodgers’ backups did in 2013.

2. How big of a contract year will Randall Cobb have?

Receiver Jordy Nelson got his big contract.  Receiver Randall Cobb hasn’t.  He has said he wants to earn it.

So will he?

Cobb definitely has the incentive to put up big numbers.  A lot of it depends on whether defenses shade coverage to Nelson or to Cobb, and whether Cobb can stay healthy, a year after missing 10 games due to injury.

3. Is Eddie Lacy ready for stardom?

The truly great running backs in the NFL hand can be listed on one hand.  Even if that hand has been partially reconfigured by a table saw.

The Packers believe Eddie Lacy can join them.  And he possibly can, given the manner in which he performed last year, especially after Rodgers was injured.

Much of Lacy’s ultimate production will hinge on the run-pass mix.  With the Packers inclined to throw the ball a lot, Lacy simply may not get the touches necessary to rack up the kind of yards that would allow him to join the likes of Adrian Peterson, LeSean McCoy, and . . . and . . . .

OK, that hand can lose three fingers.

4. How much will they miss Jermichael Finley?

Lacy could get more opportunities because the passing game will be missing a key component in 2014.  Tight end Jermichael Finley is gone, and in recent weeks there has been no talk of a return, to Green Bay or elsewhere.

It’s possible that Finley has fallen quiet because his camp is pursuing that $10 million tax-free disability policy.  If/when it appears that Finley won’t be getting the money because his injury ultimately wasn’t career ending, he may decide to play.  Which doesn’t mean the Packers will decide to embrace the risk of further injury.

Regardless, they need someone to fill the void.  Currently, they simply don’t have anyone who clearly will fill Finley’s shoes.

5.  Can Julius Peppers make a difference on defense?

Last year, in his final season with the Bears, Peppers looked like something other than what he has been when he’s been at his best.  This year, the Packers are confident Peppers will be much more than he was in 2013, even though it’s his first foray in the 3-4.

The defense desperately needs it, given the loss of B.J. Raji for the year.  Peppers on one side and Clay Matthews on the other need to create mayhem in the backfield, which will help the rest of the defense be something other than it has been when it’s been at its best.

Which has been a while.

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Seahawks re-sign wide receiver Bryan Walters

Bryan Walters, Phillip Adams AP

The Seahawks have re-signed a player whom they waived in their final cuts.

The club announced Monday it had brought back wide receiver Bryan Walters, a fifth-year pro from Cornell.

With Walters coming back, the Seahawks waived third-year wide receiver Phil Bates.

The 26-year-old Walters appeared in four games for Seattle in 2013. He also played four games for San Diego in 2011. Walters hauled in four passes for 73 yards and one touchdown in the 2014 exhibition slate for the Seahawks.

Seattle has seven receivers on its 53-player roster.

The Seahawks also announced they had signed second-year safety Josh Aubrey and rookie defensive end Julius Warmsley to their practice squad. Seattle now has all 10 practice squad spots filled.

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Seahawks players, coaches rave about Russell Wilson

Wilson AP

As the first game of the 2014 regular season approaches, the notion that Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson will make a major step forward in his third NFL season seems to be catching plenty of momentum, especially in light of his performance in the preseason.

Two of his high-profile teammates definitely believe in Russell.  As do Wilson’s two most important coaches.

“I think he’s being incredibly decisive this year,” cornerback Richard Sherman told reporters on Monday.  “He knows who he is, he knows what he wants to do and he’s doing it.  He’s not wondering what he’s going to do going into plays.  I think he goes into plays anticipating what he’s going to do, dictating what the defense does, and executing.  I think that precision is going to take him a long way and take our offense very far.  I think he’s come into his own in that respect.”

Sherman described Wilson in one word:  “Dynamic.”

“With our offense, it’s unique in how many things they can do,” Sherman said.  “You can run the fly sweep with Percy [Harvin], run it down their throat with Marshawn, you can take them deep with any number of our receivers.  There’s so many unique qualities about our offense.  It’s a combination of the West Coast, Zone Read, the Read Option, but it also has the bubble screen.  It’s so many different things that it allows him to be dynamic.  It’s hard to put him in a cookie-cutter mode. So he’s out of the pocket, he’s a roll-out quarterback, but he also sits in there and throws it.  He’s doing a great job of doing that this year.”

Harvin agrees.

“The sky is the limit for that guy,” Harvin said of Wilson.  “Anybody that has been watching the preseason, he’s been lights out.  He’s been controlling the ball, he’s had the offense at a great tempo making sure the linemen get to the ball, making sure the receivers get to the line, get the calls right so we can get up and go in a timely fashion.  All the keys he wanted to work on this offseason, I think he’s done a heck of a job.”

Coach Pete Caroll offered similar praise of his starting quarterback.

“He’s in great control of what’s going on,” Carroll said.  “He’s very, very comfortable.  He’s playing faster than he has at any time.  He understands better of what we want.  He really can play on the expectations of getting the ball out of his hands quickly and making sure that he can control rushing that regard.  He’s in tune with that better than ever.  We have a large package of stuff that we can bring into a game plan that we’ve feel like we have command of.  We will see, and he’s had a near perfect preseason.  Preparation and the way he has worked, we almost scored every time.”

Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell explained that Wilson’s drive to excel has been a key ingredient in his growth.

“Every time he comes out he tries to improve on the whole game,” Bevell said.  “There’s little subtle things that he’s working on himself, but just his overall understanding.  Every time you run a play, you understand it a little bit deeper.  There’s some new things that we’re asking him to do so he wants to be able to master those. Just the overall understanding of the offense, knowing where to go, when and why so that he’s able to play fast and free.”

But Wilson still has some improving to do to get to the top of the league.  When talking about Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Sherman said, “He’s arguably the best quarterback in this football league. I’d say it’s between him and Peyton Manning.”

That’s hardly a hot take.  It’s reality.  But if Wilson can do all year long the things that he’s been doing in the preseason, Sherman and everyone else will be including Wilson in the short list of best quarterbacks in the league.

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Earl Thomas will return punts for Seahawks

Thomas Getty Images

The first time the Seahawks force the Packers to punt on Thursday night, one of the best defensive players in the NFL won’t leave the field.

Instead, safety Earl Thomas will drop a little deeper than usual and wait to catch the ball.  Then run with it.

Coach Pete Carroll made the disclosure to reporters on Monday, with a simple, one-word answer to the question of whether Thomas will return punts.

“Yeah,” Carroll said.

That was it.  No elaboration, no follow-up questions regarding the calculated risk of exposing Thomas to a heightened injury risk.

Maybe no explanation or questions are needed.  The risk is obvious.  And the message may be that the Seahawks have a high level of comfort that, if Thomas is injured, the next man up will get it done.

At the punt return position, the next man up is Richard Sherman.

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Redskins set 10-man practice squad

Roy Finch, Akeem Davis AP

The Redskins have finished up their 10-man practice squad by bringing back a safety they waived on Sunday.

Akeem Davis has rejoined the club after being dropped from the 53-man roster to make room for Duke Ihenacho. Davis is the second safety to return to the team via the practice squad, joining 2013 fourth-round pick Phillip Thomas as players trying to work themselves into the secondary mix in Washington.

The only member of the practice squad that wasn’t in camp with the team is linebacker Chaz Sutton. He was waived by the Buccaneers last week and had three sacks as a starter for South Carolina last season.

Cornerback Richard Crawford, cornerback Chase Minnifield, tight end Ted Bolser, running back Chris Thompson, offensive lineman Tevita Stevens, defensive lineman Robert Thomas and wide receiver Nick Williams round out the practice squad.

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Jets add Phillip Adams, Walter Powell

Phillip Adams AP

The Jets have added their second cornerback in as many days.

Leon McFadden was claimed off of waivers on Sunday and the team announced Monday that they have signed Phillip Adams. Adams was released by the Seahawks on Saturday and spent the last two seasons playing in 31 games for the Raiders. The Jets are the fifth team that he’s played for since 2010, which says a lot about how well he’s played as well as how constant the need for cornerback help is in the current NFL.

It’s particularly acute with the Jets these days, so Adams should make a run at playing time alongside McFadden and anyone else who they might bring in this season.

The Jets also announced that they have claimed wide receiver Walter Powell off of waivers from the Cardinals. Powell was a sixth-round pick in this year’s draft and saw time as a receiver and returner for Arizona in the preseason.

His arrival coincides with the departure of a wideout the Jets drafted in the sixth round. Quincy Enunwa and linebacker Jeremiah George were let go to make room for the newcomers while cornerback Ellis Lankster was dropped so the team could bring back linebacker A.J. Edds.

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Patriots awarded safety Don Jones on waivers from Miami

Don Jones AP

Six days before meeting the Dolphins in the regular season opener, the Patriots have added an ex-Miami defensive back.

The Pats were awarded second-year safety Don Jones on waivers from the Dolphins on Monday, the club said.

The 24-year-old Jones notched a team-best 11 special teams tackles in 2013 for Miami, according to club statistics. An Arkansas State product, Jones was a seventh-round pick of the Dolphins in 2013.

Jones’ addition gives the Patriots six safeties. He is listed as a third-stringer behind Duron Harmon on the club’s depth chart. And, of course, Jones brings an intimate knowledge of the Dolphins to Foxborough.

In a corresponding roster move, the Patriots waived second-year offensive lineman Chris Barker.

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Tedford’s status for Week One not determined yet

Tedford AP

Buccaneers offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford recently underwent an undisclosed medical procedure.  His return date is similarly unknown.

Via JoeBucsFan.com, Tedford wasn’t at practice on Monday.  Head coach Lovie Smith said a decision regarding Tedford’s status for the regular-season opener has not yet been made.

He’s getting better,” Smith said, via Pat Yasinskas of ESPN.com.  “He stopped through this weekend.  We’re taking our time with him.  He’s getting better each day.  When he’ll be back here full-time, I don’t know.  When he’ll be available full-time, whether he’ll be available for the game this week and all those questions, we don’t have answered right now.  He’s getting better and we’ll see how all that plays out.”

Replacing Tedford will continue to be a group effort.

“In the meantime, the rest of our offensive staff will pick up for Jeff, similar to how we did it last week, with all of the guys really pitching in,” Smith said.

The Buccaneers host the Panthers on Sunday, with kickoff coming at 4:25 p.m. ET.  We continue to extend our best wishes to Tedford.

 

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Report: Raiders tab Derek Carr as starting quarterback

Derek Carr AP

The Raiders are going with a rookie at quarterback to begin the regular season.

Fox’s Jay Glazer reports the Raiders have switched starters in advance of Sunday’s opener at the Jets, with Derek Carr getting the nod over Matt Schaub.

According to Glazer, players have been informed of the decision.

The call to go with Carr comes after the second-round pick from Fresno State completed 11-of-13 passes for 143 yards and three touchdowns in the preseason finale vs. Seattle. Schaub sat out the game with elbow soreness.

Schaub, whom the Raiders acquired from Houston in the offseason, was just 24-of-47 passing for 218 yards with no touchdowns and one interception in exhibition play. He was sacked three times.

Carr is the fourth different Week One starter for Oakland in as many seasons. Terrelle Pryor was the initial starter in 2013, with Carson Palmer (2012) and Jason Campbell (2011) preceding him.

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Gronkowski’s announcement a little confusing

Gronk AP

Yes, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski has declared that he has gotten the green light to play on Sunday from his doctors, after a torn ACL derailed his 2013 season.  The bigger question could be whether he got the green light from his head coach to disclose that he got the green light from his doctors.

When it comes to injury information, the Patriots notoriously disclose none of it.  Or, when it comes to Tom Brady’s chronic right shoulder problem, deliberate misinformation.  Last year, for example, Gronkowski was routinely listed as questionable as he continued to recover from multiple arm surgeries, hinting at a 50-50 chance he’d play even though, in hindsight, it was clear he wasn’t going to suit up early in the season.

This year, instead of keeping the Week One opponent guessing about whether he’ll play, Gronkowski has revealed on his own that he’ll play.  He either did so without the blessing of the boss, or as part of a deliberate plan to make the Dolphins think they’ll see more of Gronk than they actually will.

If it’s the former, Gronk could still be chafing from the questions that swirled last year regarding whether he was milking the arm injury, able to practice but unwilling to play.  Or maybe he’s feeling a heightened sense of urgency to play now that Tim Wright has arrived.  If it’s the latter, it’s hardly out of character.

Regardless, it’s unusual for anyone from the team to be quite so forthcoming when it comes to injuries.  And it’s hard not to wonder whether, given Belichick’s Naval Academy upbringing and penchant for strategic gamesmanship, the Dolphins won’t see Gronkowski very much, and possibly not at all.

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Rams claim Case Keenum off waivers from Texans

Case Keenum AP

The Rams have another quarterback, just in case.

According to Adam Schefter of ESPN, the Rams claimed Case Keenum off waivers from the Texans.

Keenum was squeezed out in Houston when the Texans traded for Ryan Mallett, and he’ll slot in with the Rams behind Shaun Hill. Austin Davis was the only other quarterback on the Rams roster after the season-ending knee injury to Sam Bradford.

Keenum got eight mop-up starts for the Texans last year, and was the loser in each of them. But that’s hardly his fault, as he was merely the guy holding the wheel after the ship hit the iceberg and Matt Schaub was thrown overboard to save weight.

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Decision on Josh Gordon lawsuit coming soon

Gordon Getty Images

Five days ago, the NFL suspended Browns receiver Josh Gordon for the entire 2014 season.  Within the next day or two, a decision will be made regarding whether Gordon will challenge the suspension via the court system.

Per a source with knowledge of the situation, Gordon’s legal team plans to reach a conclusion in the immediate future.  If suit is filed, expect it to come swiftly — and to include a motion for what the law calls a preliminary injunction.

Identical to the move that blocked the StarCaps suspensions for months even though the players ultimately failed to secure a court order overturning the outcome of the internal appeal, Gordon would ask a judge to prevent the NFL from implementing the suspension until the case ends.

If it happens, it will be a tall order.  Courts routinely consider various factors when deciding whether to freeze the status quo in place until a lawsuit ends.  Key considerations include a showing that the player will suffer irreparable harm if he later wins the case, since he can’t go back and play the games he missed, along proof that the player has a strong likelihood of eventually securing a victory.

It won’t be easy for Gordon, unless his legal team finds an obscure Ohio law that the NFL’s substance-abuse policy and testing program violates.  Still, even if there’s a slim chance of Gordon delaying the suspension via the court system, not spinning the Wheel of Wapner guarantees a Blutarskiesque outcome.

Then again, suing could make it harder to persuade the NFL to move quickly and favorably when Gordon applies for reinstatement.  That’s a real consider for Gordon; with plenty of discretion available when the time comes to determine whether he’s cleared to return early in the 2015 offseason, angering the league could delay a green light.

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Rams sign 10 to practice squad, none of them Michael Sam

michaelsam AP

If Michael Sam signs on a practice squad, it won’t be with the Rams.

At least not this week.

The Rams announced 10 signings to their practice squad, and none of them were the seventh-round pick vying to become the first openly gay player in the NFL.

The team signed linebacker Denicos Allen, wide receiver Emory Blake, safety Christian Bryant, defensive tackle Matt Conrath, safety Matt Daniels, quarterback Garrett Gilbert, tackle Sean Hooey, linebacker Kevin Reddick, wide receiver Justin Veltung and guard Brandon Washington.

Eight of those guys were in Rams camp, while Allen was with the Panthers and Reddick with the Saints.

So Sam’s quest for employment will continue, away from the team that knows him best.

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A healthy Cam Newton is a life preserver for Panthers

Carolina Panthers v Pittsburgh Steelers Getty Images

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is already big.

But he cut an even more imposing figure Monday, wearing a heavily padded flak jacket to protect the hairline fracture in a rib that kept him out of the preseason finale.

“I told him in the event of a water landing he can be used as a flotation device,” center Ryan Kalil cracked, via Bill Voth of Black and Blue Review.

Newton apparently didn’t look perfectly loose during the portion of practice open to media, but that stands to reason. After taking a nasty shot in the third preseason game against the Patriots, he’s done little since then.

“He threw a few more passes today than we expected,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “He’s all right. He’s sore, but it’s not like it was when it first happened.”

There’s little doubt he’ll play Sunday against Tampa, as he’s demonstrated his toughness during his three years there.

The question is how much the time he missed this offseason (both because of ankle surgery and the recent rib issue), will impair a Panthers offense that’s breaking in an entirely new receiving corps and a mostly-new offensive line.

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Eagles add fifth-rounder Ed Reynolds to practice squad

Ed Reynolds, Jaylen Watkins AP

The Eagles didn’t have room for fifth-round safety Ed Reynolds on their initial 53-man roster, but he’ll continue to get chances to show them what he can do on the field.

Reynolds was one of eight players added to the team’s practice squad. The former Stanford Cardinal defender missed a chunk of offseason work because of the school’s late end date and wasn’t able to catch up over the summer. With three safeties and special teamer Chris Maragos on the 53-man, Reynolds could get a look sooner rather than later if injury strikes in the secondary.

The Eagles also brought back quarterback G.J. Kinne, who has gained some experience in the offense while spending the last two summers with the team. Kinne’s chances of advancing to the active roster aren’t so good since the Eagles have Nick Foles, Mark Sanchez and Matt Barkley in the fold as well.

Linebacker Emmanuel Acho, guard/center Josh Andrews, tackle/guard Kevin Graf, defensive lineman Wade Kelilikipi, wide receiver Will Murphy, running back Matthew Tucker and wide receiver Quron Pratt are the others that have been added to the practice squad in Philly.

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