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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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Half-baked plan: Both Blount and Bell to play tonight

Buffalo Bills v Pittsburgh Steelers Getty Images

The Steelers are going to take their time deciding how to handle running backs LeGarrette Blount and Le’Veon Bell after last night’s marijuana possession arrests.

And they’re definitely going to wait longer than a day.

According to Aditi Kinkhabwala of the NFL Network, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin will play both of them tonight against the Eagles.

Bell, who was also charged with DUI, has paid his own way to Philadelphia to join the team, so apparently he’s going to get something for his money. Blount was on the team charter.

The move to play them seems dicey in light of potential punishment, but the Steelers also have to pick a roster after tonight’s game, and having their regular runners in there will give them a better chance to evaluate the rest of the offense.

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PFT Live: Steelers talk with Ed Bouchette, 49ers talk with Matt Maiocco

Britain Steelers Vikings Football AP

Two Steelers players were caught with grass in Pittsburgh, they’re tearing up the grass in Santa Clara and we’ll be talking about all that and much more during Thursday’s edition of PFT Live.

Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette will join Mike Florio to discuss the arrests of running backs Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount on Wednesday and the possible fallout if they are charged with marijuana possession and, in the case of Bell, DUI in the future. That will include Pittsburgh’s plans for the pair when they face the Eagles in Philadelphia on Thursday night.

Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area will also be on hand to discuss the work underway at Levi’s Stadium to replace some of the sod after 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh stopped Wednesday’s workout at the team’s new stadium because of problems with the field. They’ll also talk about the team that the 49ers will be putting on that field during Maiocco’s visit.

It all gets started at 1 p.m. ET and you can watch it all live by clicking right here.

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Raiders have no worries about Khalil Mack

Khalil Mack, Kellen Moore AP

Texans linebacker Jadeveon Clowney got a lot of attention for his sack of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan during last week’s preseason game, but there was no such acclaim for Raiders linebacker Khalil Mack after his own sack.

That’s because Mack’s sack came against backups for the Lions, which isn’t exactly what you’d call a crowning achievement for the fifth overall pick in the draft. Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle reports that Mack has had a “ho-hum” training camp for the Raiders and that the rookie “has looked slow getting off the line of scrimmage,” something that Mack says is because he’s thinking too much in the heat of the moment.

None of that is a cause for concern for Raiders coach Dennis Allen, who said he believes Mack will be an impact player in 2014. Safety Charles Woodson said that Mack just needs time to digest everything in front of him before he starts making plays.

“He has a lot on his plate,” Woodson said. “Not just from the standpoint of him being a high pick and everybody expecting that ‘wow’ factor out of him, but as far as the plays, knowing the positions and different things they have him doing, there is a lot expected of him in that sense, too. You just allow him to grow as a player … This guy is going to be OK, and I think the sky is the limit for him.”

Clowney and plenty of other highly touted rookies have has rough moments during their first preseason outings as well, so there’s nothing unusual about it taking some time for things to come together for Mack. Based on his college exploits and size/speed mix, there’s every reason to believe big things will follow once they do.

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Jason Garrett: DeVonte Holloman advised to end career after neck injury

DeVonte Holloman AP

One of the Cowboys’ young defensive players has reportedly received some unfortunate news.

Second-year linebacker DeVonte Holloman has been advised by doctors to give up football due to a neck injury, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said Thursday, according to Charean Williams of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Holloman injured his neck in the Cowboys’ Saturday exhibition vs. Baltimore. Moreover, he suffered a spinal contusion last season.

The 23-year-old Holloman appeared in nine games (two starts) for Dallas in 2013, recording 26 tackles and two sacks. A South Carolina product, Holloman was a sixth-round pick of the Cowboys in 2013.

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49ers already replacing the sod in their new stadium

levis-stadium-dirt-field-aerial

The 49ers are going to have some dirt and grass stains on their brand new Levi’s, as they’re already replacing the sod in their state-of-the-art stadium.

After one concert, a soccer match and one preseason NFL game, the field was already in such dire shape the 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh pulled his team off the field last night during a practice.

 

According to Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com, crews were at work this morning stripping up the old sod to put in new, in advance of the next game there Sunday.

The previous grass was installed in April, and didn’t root down well enough to keep multiple players from slipping and sod to come up in chunks at last night’s public practice.

The 49ers issued a statement Wednesday night saying the team had “determined the appropriate measures necessary to have the field ready for Sunday and look forward to hosting the San Diego Chargers.”

They have more than that on tap, as two high school games are schedule there on Aug. 29, followed by a soccer match between Mexico and Chile on Sept. 6 before the regular season opener against the Bears on Sept. 14.

Such quick turnarounds for sod aren’t uncommon, but it’s still a dramatic blemish for a brand-new building.

Photo credit: KNTV

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Tom Coughlin: Want excitement? Move extra points to the 1

New York Giants v Dallas Cowboys Getty Images

Giants coach Tom Coughlin says the NFL went in the wrong direction in its preseason extra point experiment.

Coughlin says that if the idea is to make extra points a more exciting play, moving kicks back to the 15-yard line while keeping two-point conversion attempts at the 2-yard line wasn’t the right way to do it. Coughlin says the NFL should have moved all point-after attempts to the 1-yard line, to encourage coaches to go for two.

I didn’t think much of it when it was suggested,” Coughlin said, via Conor Orr of the Star-Ledger. “There are some ways to change that part of it if the intent is to make it more exciting. I think that certainly would be one of them. I think you have to be aware of the fact that it’s a 33-yard field goal in November when the wind’s blowing and it’s snowing here and it’s… in Miami it’s 75 degrees. It’s a little different in different parts of the country. You do have to be aware of that. I would say probably the ball will stay at the two, extra points. But if you really want to make it interesting put it at the one.”

Coughlin makes a good point: If the ball were spotted at the 1-yard line, NFL coaches would be much more tempted to go for two more often, on the theory that a run up the middle is more likely to be successful from a yard away than two yards away. (And additionally under the theory that a pass is more likely to be successful when the defense has to stack the line of scrimmage to stop a run up the middle.)

The NFL is expected to make some change to the extra point rule, and probably sooner rather than later. Coughlin’s idea of moving the ball to the 1 may make more sense than the preseason experiment of moving the ball to the 15.

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Chargers preseason tickets going for next to nothing

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Each week during the regular season, we monitor the Chargers for blackouts.

But in the preseason, it’s hard for some people to give away the tickets they’ve already paid for.

According to Jonathan Horn of U-T San Diego, the secondary market for Chargers tickets underscores the (lack of) value of the preseason for consumers.

They found tickets for next week’s fourth exhibition game as low as $6.55, with most seats available on StubHub going around 85 percent off face value.

Of course, it doesn’t help that the game features the Cardinals, who will be back 11 days later for a real game on Monday Night Football, or that few if any stars will appear.

“It’s got all the factors of being a dud,” said ticket broker John Nelson, owner of Premier Tickets in Mission Valley. “I’m prepared to take $10 a ticket just to get something.”

Considering it’s the secondary market — meaning they’ve already sold that ticket once — it’s hard to know how much NFL owners care about the low demand.

But it’s also a sign of growing dissatisfaction with the preseason at a time when there’s little movement from owners to shorten it.

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Will Packers keep three quarterbacks?

Akeem Ayers, Karl Klug, Scott Tolzien AP

One year ago, the Packers had Vince Young, B.J. Coleman and Graham Harrell competing to back up starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

But by the beginning of the 2013 regular season, all three reserves were gone.

A total backup QB reshuffling isn’t in the cards this season for Green Bay, which has two capable reserves in Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien. But as Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel noted in a story published Wednesday, the Packers may have to decide whether to keep one or two backups behind Rodgers.

The competition between Flynn and Tolzien is “neck and neck,” Packers QBs coach Alex Van Pelt told the Journal Sentinel.

Rodgers expressed similar sentiments.

“I think they’re both playing well and it is close,” Rodgers said, per the Journal Sentinel. “I think they have made the No. 2 decision difficult and also keeping three quarterbacks difficult.”

According to Journal Sentinel, Flynn has practiced as the top backup this week and looks likely relieve Rodgers in Friday night’s dress rehearsal against Oakland.

There are downsides to keeping two or three quarterbacks. If the Packers keep just two, they will have let go of either Flynn, who’s risen to the occasion in relief of Rodgers throughout his career; or Tolzien, who may have more long-term upside than Flynn.

However, if the Packers go with three quarterbacks, they will lose a depth chart spot at another position.

That said, the Packers look to be a facing a more pleasant decision than a year ago, when it was quite clear Rodgers’ backup might not be on the roster.

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Le’Veon Bell made his own way to Philadelphia

Le'Veon Bell AP

Steelers running backs Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount were both in a car pulled over by police on Wednesday and are expected to be charged with possession of marijuana after 20 grams of it were found in the vehicle, but only Bell is also facing potential DUI charges since he was behind the wheel.

Bell was taken to a Pittsburgh hospital to have his blood drawn to test for marijuana in his system, which meant that he didn’t make it on the team’s charter flight to Philadelphia for Thursday’s game against the Eagles. Missing the charter won’t mean that Bell is staying at home, however.

Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that Bell made his own way to Philadelphia. Blount, who did not have any blood drawn, was on the team’s charter flight.

The team is aware of the incident on Wednesday, but offered no further comment about either player’s status for Thursday night’s game or anything else having to do with their status.

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Report: 49ers don’t want to trade holdout guard Alex Boone

alexboonerhino

Considering the 49ers either did or did not offer holdout guard Alex Boone a new deal that would pay him like a top-12 guard in the NFL, his situation is still very much in limbo.

Thus, teams are calling to ask about his availability.

But according to Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com, the 49ers are not interested in trading Boone.

One source suggested that they only way they’d do it is if someone offered a first- or second-round pick, a high price considering the new contract that would have to accompany it.

And that’s almost a de facto “no sale” sign, unless some team is truly desperate.

Boone has two years left on his current deal, and is scheduled to make $2 million this season. He’s held out of the first four weeks of training camp, which led to fines of $30,000, which means he will shortly chew up about half that amount.

The 49ers have been talking up backup Joe Looney, and by putting out word that they don’t want to deal Boone, perhaps they might make a move to keep him.

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Pierre Thomas expects to do “more pass protection and route running”

Drew Brees, Pierre Thomas AP

The Saints traded Darren Sproles to the Eagles this offseason and saw Lance Moore sign with the Steelers after getting cut in a pair of moves that eliminated two players that caught 108 passes between them in 2013.

Running back Pierre Thomas expects at least a few of those passes to come his way this season. Thomas has seen Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson get increased work running the ball this season, leaving him with the feeling that he’ll be doing a lot of his work in the passing game.

“I know my role is going to change a whole lot this year,” Thomas said, via the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “I’m going to do more pass protection and route running. I’m improving my route running game. I’m still going to be running the ball too. I’ve got a few changes here and there.”

Thomas was hardly a bystander in the passing offense last season as he caught 77 passes to set a career high, so it wouldn’t be too surprising to see him take on some of Sproles’ portfolio. But they also added rookie wide receiver Brandin Cooks and given Ingram more work as a receiver this summer, so things may shake out differently than Thomas expects.

That may mean that he winds up doing more, however. Coach Sean Payton said that every year they go into a season with a plan for Thomas that then shifts because Thomas is “an exceptionally smart player” who knows the Saints offense very well after years in the system. That familiarity can be comforting to an offense and it could turn out to be a familiar role for Thomas as a result.

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Five questions: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Jacksonville Jaguars Getty Images

The Buccaneers have a lot to put behind them after 2013.

But after blowing out the front office, sterilizing the locker room for MRSA and a lot of big names off the payroll (namely Darrelle Revis), it’s a new day in Tampa Bay.

They even changed the uniforms, although that might be one case where new isn’t better.

But for all the turnover in Tampa, there’s at least reason for optimism, which is something that was lacking after two seasons gone awry under Greg Schiano.

1. How quickly can Lovie Smith reshape the team in his own image?

By all accounts, quickly.

The Bucs turned over a roster like few teams in the league this offseason, on both sides of the ball. But this is clearly a team built to Smith’s specifications, with playmakers on every level of the defense, and a quarterback and an offense designed to minimize mistakes.

He’s also giving them a shot of credibility, after the fiasco that was the Greg Schiano experiment.

2. About that quarterback, is this a short-term fix?

Josh McCown has bounced around the league a bit, and has never been able to make a job his own for more than a few weeks at a time.

But he’s also respected in the locker room, and is coming off a brilliant stint in Chicago in relief of an injured Jay Cutler.

Mike Glennon isn’t so bad that they don’t think he can be their guy in a few years, but he wasn’t so good last year that Smith was willing to commit to him. Watching this position develop will be interesting as the season goes on, and if McCown can hang onto what could be his last chance at a starting job.

3. Can they keep either quarterback on his feet?

That might be the biggest question about this Bucs roster.

The offensive line was a hot mess early in the preseason, and they still can’t be sure who the guards are.

They spent free agent money on Anthony Collins to play left tackle and Evan Dietrich-Smith to play center, and Demar Dotson is solid and underrated at right tackle. The spots between them are the big question marks.

They moved one presumptive starter (Jamon Meredity) to tackle after a bad debut, and are still grading a couple of kids at the moment. The two guard spots are far from a finished product, and they’ll likely look to add there via cuts or trades.

4. How much will the offense matter?

Maybe not as much as you’d think.

The Bucs have a chance to have an old-Bucs-level defense, built around defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. He and linebacker Lavonte David give the Bucs a Sapp-Brooks-ish duo in the front seven, and there’s plenty of talent around them.

They’ll need to be great, but there’s a very real possibility that can happen, as Smith puts his imprint on a team with plenty of existing talent.

5. How much ground can they make up in a year?

It would probably be unfair to expect the Bucs to pull off the worst-to-first, but that’s happened often in the NFC South.

Improvement is almost certain, as they have a clear direction and a coach that inspires confidence rather than mutiny.

If they can straighten out the offensive line and run a little, there’s a real chance for them to make a big step.

But playing in a division with the Panthers, Saints and Falcons is going to make it hard to expect a playoff berth in Year One of this project.

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Calvin Johnson “as curious as anybody else” about how he’ll be used this season

Calvin Johnson AP

The Lions will give wide receiver Calvin Johnson his first playing time of the preseason on Friday night against the Jaguars.

It will also be his first game action as part of the offense put together by new Lions offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, who has talked about moving Johnson around the offense more than previous Lions coordinators have in past seasons. Johnson thinks doing so will give the Lions a good idea about what opposing defenses are doing, but he admits that even he isn’t quite sure how things will look when put into actual practice.

“I’m as curious as anybody else,” Johnson said, via the Detroit Free Press. “But one thing that’s not going to change is the way we go out there and work. We’re still going to go out there and bust our butts. No matter what Coach calls, however we fit into the plan, we just want to win at this point.”

Johnson said his physical condition is good, describing it as “night and day” to last season when he dealt with knee and finger issues that needed surgical attention after the season. As long as things stay that way, it’s a good guess that Johnson will remain a major part of the Lions offense regardless of where he lines up on the field.

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Jalen Saunders still not sure what happened to him

Indianapolis Colts v New York Jets Getty Images

Jets rookie wide receiver Jalen Saunders didn’t shed much light on the “medical incident” that sent him to the hospital after he drove his car off the road last week, but he said he didn’t think whatever it was would jeopardize his career.

But he also made it clear he’s still looking for answers, as they make sure he’s well before putting him back on the field.

I’m not sure what it is,” Saunders said, via Darryl Slater of the Newark Star-Ledger. “That’s why I got the tests done on me. I’m still waiting on information to get back from the team doctors. So whenever I figure out what is going on with my body, I’ll be happy to share what’s going on.”

The fourth-rounder, who figured to be their punt returner this year, said he’s not sure if there are long-term implications or whether it could crop up again.

The Jets won’t use him this weekend against the Giants, but Sauders said he’s “not concerned at all” about his football career being impacted.

“I still have a bright future ahead of me,” he said. “That’s my gut feeling. I’ve got God by my side, so that’s all that matters.”

That and the opinion of the doctors. He spent two nights in the hospital getting tests, and still needs more information to make sure he’s going to be well.

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Nick Fairley wants to win his starting job back

Nick Fairley AP

Nick Fairley admitted he let himself go a bit, gained some weight, and that contributed to his benching.

But even after the latest attempt to motivate the 2011 first-rounder, Fairly says he wants to earn back the Lions’ trust and become the kind of player they think he can be.

“Really what I plan on doing is just continue to get better as a player and help this team win and just go out there and play my [tail] off,” Fairley said.

The Lions recently put him behind C.J. Mosley on the depth chart, and Fairley denied he was disappointed, even though he hopes to regain his starting job soon.

“No, no, no. Not at all,” he said. “Hey, I’m a team player. I’m here to help this team win, and I’m trying to be the best teammate I can.”

That almost sounds sincere (unlike when Arian Foster says it when he’s trying to get out of interviews he seems to think are beneath him), but the Lions have a vested interest in getting Fairley back in the boat.

Teammate Ndamukong Suh said: “Nick is more athletically gifted than me, and he has an opportunity to be better than me, and that’s what I want to see out of him.”

While that might be a stretch, it’s safe to say he can be an important part of the Lions’ defense, but only if he’s in shape and wants to be.

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