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Pepper Johnson excited about getting out of Belichick’s shadow

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Pepper Johnson has been linked to Bill Belichick for most of his career in professional football.

As a player, Johnson played for three teams that featured Belichick on their staff. After retirement, Johnson did a coaching fellowship with the Patriots in 2000 and remained with the team until last month as a defensive assistant working with linebackers and defensive linemen. Johnson was hired by the Bills as a defensive line coach as they rebuilt their defensive staff after Mike Pettine left for Cleveland and took several assistants with him.

During an interview with John Murphy on the Bills website, Johnson explained that one of the reasons for breaking the long-standing relationship was because he felt he needed to get out from under Belichick’s tutelage.

“My legs are still shaking a little bit,” Johnson said. “But I’m excited, I’m so excited. I have always been a fan of Doug [Marrone] and the Buffalo Bills, and just getting the opportunity to spread my wings, and to get up from under the shadow of Coach Belichick. So it’s a good thing, a good opportunity.”

Johnson called an eventual move to defensive coordinator “a dream of mine,” but was passed over in favor of Matt Patricia in New England and appears to feel that a lateral move now is the best way to set up a move up the ladder down the road.

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Jones thinks a team or two is headed to L.A.

George Straight 2014 The Cowboy Rides Away Tour Press Conference Getty Images

Collectively, the NFL’s owners have yet to decide whether a franchise will relocate to Los Angeles.  Individually, more and more of them have expressed a belief that it’s going to happen.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones recently has joined the growing chorus of owners that see the NFL back in L.A.

“It does,” Jones said on PFT Live regarding the notion that it looks like a team or two will be returning to Los Angeles in 2016.  “[Chargers owner] Dean Spanos is outstanding, [Raiders owner] Mark Davis has got a legacy associated with Los Angeles, the Raiders, and of course [Rams owner] Stan Kroenke is one of the top owners we have in the room.  They’re doers, their teams are in a position that can do it.

“It’s going to mean a huge risk and a huge commitment of dollars to whoever does it,” Jones added.  “That will assure us that they’ll kill themselves making this a success.  Los Angeles is big to the NFL, it’s bigger than your normal consideration.  Los Angeles just has a ‘wow’ factor that we’ve got to do it right.  And that’s my biggest concern.  All of these guys are capable, they’ve got teams that the fans of Los Angeles are familiar with in all cases; two that have been in Los Angeles and one that’s been right down the road. So this is a good situation I think.”

What about the looming possibility that a team like the Raiders will end up right down the road from the Cowboys, in San Antonio?

“Well if they go there, we have a plain suburb called Plano, Texas right outside of Dallas. There’s a higher percentage of Cowboy fans in San Antonio than there is in Plano; 97 percent.  So it’s a great hotbed for us down there, we do a lot of things down there, we train down there.  So if they go down there they’ll be surrounded with a lot of Cowboy fans and that’s good, that’s good.  The main things I’m interested in is the fans in San Antonio getting all the football they deserve to get.”

Regardless, fans in L.A. will be getting plenty of football.  Whether they deserve it depends on how many of them show up to experience it.

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Pagano plans to coach Colts for “many years to come”

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Colts coach Chuck Pagano reportedly won’t be getting a new contract before the final season of his initial four-year deal.  But that doesn’t have Pagano thinking about working for any other team.

Be where your feet are,” Pagano said in a statement issued Friday night, via Stephen Holder of the Indianapolis Star.  “What do I mean?  Cancer taught me to be thankful for today.  All I’m concentrating on is today.  Then tomorrow.  My focus right now is on the draft, bringing in players that can help us continue to grow, get better, and continue to ‘Build the Monster.’  I look forward to coaching the Colts this season and for many years to come.”

To summarize, Pagano isn’t thinking about the future but he plans to remain with the Colts well into the future.  Whether owner Jim Irsay feels that way after the next football season ends remains to be seen.

It also remains to be seen whether Irsay issues a statement of his own.  Or says something about the situation on Twitter.  Using what may or may not be song lyrics.

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NFL found 25 failures to remove players from 2012 through 2014

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Earlier this week, the NFL gave the ATC spotter the power to stop the game action and insist on the removal of a player in distress.  It gives the spotter unprecedented authority, but it definitely was needed.

According to the league office, film study revealed 25 occasions in the last three seasons during which players in distress were not immediately removed from play.  (In a recent appearance on PFT Live on NBC Sports Radio, NFL executive V.P. of football operations Troy Vincent inadvertently said that the 25 plays came entirely from 2014.)

Vincent specifically confirmed that Patriots receiver Julian Edelman should have been removed from play for further evaluation after taking a blow to the head in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIX.  It nevertheless remains to be seen whether the ATC spotter will stop the action and remove a key player during crunch time of a postseason game.

NBC Sports Medicine Analyst Mike Ryan, a long-time NFL athletic trainer, explained during Friday’s PFT Live that it shouldn’t be an issue, because the spotter should at all times have player health and safety as the paramount concern.  Still, if the spotter removes, for example, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady at a critical moment of the Super Bowl and Brady ends up being fine, the spotter will need to be ready to withstand the criticism that necessarily will come from the decision to send Brady to the sideline for at least one snap.

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49ers waive CB Cameron Fuller

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The 49ers will have a different look at cornerback entering 2015.

This extends even to the reserve ranks.

San Francisco announced Friday it had waived second-year corner Cameron Fuller. The 24-yar-old Fuller joined the 49ers’s practice squad in mid-December and was on the active roster for the regular season finale vs. Arizona.

Two of the 49ers’s key cornerbacks of a season ago — Perrish Cox and Chris Culliver — have departed in free agency. While the club did add Chargers cornerback Shareece Wright in free agency, the position’s depth looms a concern as the 2015 NFL Draft nears.

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Bears owner at first said no to Ray McDonald, then changed his mind

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Bears owner George McCaskey says that when General Manager Ryan Pace first approached him about signing Ray McDonald, McCaskey said no. Then McDonald changed McCaskey’s mind.

McCaskey said that he initially thought McDonald, who was accused of both domestic violence and sexual assault last year, should not be brought to Chicago. But McDonald, who was not charged in connection with either accusation, reached out to McCaskey personally and convinced him that the Bears should take a chance on him.

“Ryan had asked me for permission to pursue him, and we had a file on him with the information that we had gathered,” McCaskey said. “I looked at the file and came back and said no. So Ryan said, ‘Fine, we’ll move onto the next guy.’ And then Ray . . . asked if I would be willing to meet with him and I said yes. The fact that he proposed that idea, I gave him a lot of credit for. He was very candid, very forthright. It was a difficult conversation. It was long. It took a lot out of me and I think it took a lot out of him. After that conversation, I told Ryan that he had our permission.”

So what did McDonald say to McCaskey to change his mind?

“He talked about these incidents which have become public knowledge and walked me through each one,” McCaskey said. “I don’t want to get too much into the particulars. I just want to give you a sense of the conversation. I was impressed with how sincere he was and how he motivated he is. He understands I think that he could have well been facing the end of his football career, and he loves football and he wants that career to continue. So I was impressed with his motivation.”

Now the question is whether McDonald can stay out of trouble in Chicago, or whether the Bears will have egg on their faces for giving McDonald another chance.

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Jets sending six to work out Mariota

Playoff Championship Ohio St Oregon Football AP

Back from Arizona after the league meetings, the Jets will now be heading west for a workout with quarterback Marcus Mariota.  And they may need a bigger plane to get there.

Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News reports that six key decision makers will be heading to Oregon to work out Mariota, including G.M. Mike Maccagnan, coach Todd Bowles, offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, quarterbacks coach Kevin Patullo, director of college scouting Rex Hogan, and director of player personnel Brian Heimerdinger.

The Jets currently sit at No. 6 in round one, and there’s a chance Mariota will slide to them.  There’s also a chance the Jets will become sufficiently enthralled with Mariota to trade up with the team bearing the nickname the Jets once had:  The Titans.

Three years ago, Washington gave up the No. 6 pick, two additional first-round picks, and a second round pick to jump to No. 2, where they selected quarterback Robert Griffin III.

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Titans bring back CB Brandon Harris

Brandon Harris, T.Y. Hilton AP

The Titans have re-signed a secondary reserve, reaching a one-year deal with cornerback Brandon Harris, the club said Friday.

Harris (5-10, 189) made 11 tackles in 11 games with Tennessee in 2014. A Miami (Fla.) product, Harris had played the previous three seasons with Houston, which took him in Round Two in 2011. Overall, Harris has recorded 48 tackles and 10 passes defensed in regular season play.

Harris will again vie for a backup role with the Titans, who are likely to start Perrish Cox and Jason McCourty at the cornerback spots next season. One factor working in Harris’s favor in the near future? He is just 25 years old, and his combination of experience and relative youth would enhance his value were he to have a breakout season at some point.

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Caldwell says things “didn’t work out” with Reggie Bush

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Reggie Bush led the Lions in rushing in 2013, but they cut Bush before free agency.  At the league meetings in Arizona, coach Jim Caldwell didn’t have much to say about why Bush is no longer in Detroit.

“I think oftentimes you’ll find that there are going to be some adjustments here and there that you make that when you look at your team and make a determination on your personnel, what you think is best,” Caldwell said, via Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.  “Sometimes you got to let some guys go, and sometimes you try to make certain you keep certain guys if you can.  But it’s not always the case, and in that particular case it didn’t work out.  So we look to do other things.”

Those “other things” don’t mean finding another running back.  Instead, Bush’s absence will mean more opportunities for Joique Bell and Theo Riddick.

“I think [Riddick is] going to be one of those guys that’s going to force us to get him that ball a little bit more because I think you’re really going to see him come,” Caldwell said.

While the Lions decided to move on from Bush, the 49ers stepped in with a bottom-of-the-market contract but major expectations that he’ll be an every down back, as they search for a Frank Gore replacement.

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Panthers claim Jonathan Martin off waivers from 49ers

Jonathan Martin AP

The Panthers just added some more offensive line depth, and have now employed both players offended by Richie Incognito.

The Panthers announced they claimed tackle Jonathan Martin off waivers from the 49ers, a day after he was cut loose there.

Martin has shown at times to have NFL talent, though the abuse he took in Miami made some question how he’d fit into a locker room in the future. The 49ers, with his old college coach Jim Harbaugh, were a good place for him to reestablish himself.

The Panthers could use all the tackle depth they can get their hands on, so Martin has an opportunity for playing time. For a team that opened last year with Byron Bell and a converted defensive tackle (Nate Chandler) as their starting tackles, they’ve now added two cheap upgrades in Michael Oher and Martin.

“Our goal is to build the strongest roster possible and add competition at every position,” Panthers General Manager Dave Gettleman said in a statement from the team. “Jonathan brings quality experience to our offensive line, having started 32 games in his career at both tackle spots.”

The Panthers had “Player A” from the Ted Wells report, guard Andrew McDonaldin camp last summer.

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Pagano, Grigson could have a hard time staying on same page this year

Pagano AP

2015 began as the year of the mutual parting, with a pair of successful coaches who were unable to achieve ultimate success leaving their teams.  That trend could continue in 2016, if the Colts don’t extend the contract of coach Chuck Pagano, and if he moves on after the season ends.

Complicating matters is the identical status of G.M. Ryan Grigson.  Both he and Pagano will be commencing contract years, which means that either Grigson or Pagano may bear the ultimate blame for the failure of the Colts to get beyond (or at least stay within 38 points of) the Patriots.

It also means that Grigson and Pagano could be tempted to blame each other, in the event that the 2015 season at any point unravels.  If, for example, the team’s run defense — its “Achilles heel,” per Pagano — continues to fail to slow down New England, Pagano could be tempted to blame it on the personnel, and Grigson could be tempted to blame it on the coaching.

Bob Kravitz of WTHR.com suspects, as he explained during Friday’s PFT Live on NBC Sports Radio, that a disconnect already exists between Pagano and Grigson.  The leak that Pagano (but not Grigson) won’t be getting a new contract before the season at a minimum raises a question about whether Pagano already is being set up to take the fall.

Regardless of their current relationship, it becomes critical for Pagano and Grigson to band together, setting aside a desire to survive something less than a full-blown purge and accepting the notion that both will stay or both will go.  Three years ago, owner Jim Irsay opted to press the reset button, firing both coach Jim Caldwell and G.M. Bill Polian.  This time around, Irsay may be inclined to fire only one or the other; after the 2001 season, Polian stayed and coach Jim Mora was let go.

To be as successful as they possible can be, Pagano and Grigson need to commit to cooperation and mutual support.  That’s definitely easier said than done, especially since one of them sits in a box with the owner during games and the other one is down on the sidelines, wondering what they may be talking about up there.

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Mike Westhoff thinks kickers are so good, special teams are boring

Jets coaches Ryan and Westhoff react while they played the 49ers in NFL game in East Rutherford Reuters

There was a time when kickers missed extra points regularly, went whole seasons without hitting a 50-yard field goal and struggled to boot kickoffs into the end zone. But that time is in the distant past.

That’s why Mike Westhoff, long one of the NFL’s most colorful special teams coaches, now thinks the kicking game is downright boring.

“The job I did doesn’t exist today,” Westhoff told ESPN. “What do you want me to coach, touchbacks? Not interested.”

Westhoff thinks the NFL needs to move extra points back, narrow the goal posts and make the hashmarks closer to the sidelines so that there are more field goals from difficult angles.

“Kicking has become easier today,” Westhoff said. “The kickers are bigger, stronger and better athletes than before.”

So much better that special teams just aren’t as fun as they used to be.

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Panthers add former Packers wide receiver Jarrett Boykin

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On a day when another of their targets spurned them, the Panthers signed a guy they had in for a recent visit.

The team announced they had signed former Packers wide receiver Jarrett Boykin to a one-year contract.

Boykin spent three years with the Packers, but became a free agent when they didn’t tender him an offer this offseason.

He caught 49 passes in 2013, but fell down the pecking order when the regulars got well and caught just three passes last year.

Boykin grew up in Charlotte, attending Butler High, and has a chance to latch on in a much shallower depth chart than the one he was stuck on in Green Bay.

Earlier this afternoon, cornerback Alan Ball signed with the Bears after his visit to the Panthers.

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Foles may just be a stopgap in St. Louis

folesfisher AP

The Rams like Nick Foles enough that they turned down at least one offer of a first-round draft pick for Sam Bradford, and traded for Foles instead. But the Rams may not like Foles enough to keep him around beyond this year.

Rams coach Jeff Fisher says the Rams plan to draft a quarterback this year, and the presence of Foles doesn’t change that.

It’s our intention to draft one,” Fisher said, via the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “The Nick trade has no bearing over what we do in the draft.”

But which quarterback will they draft? Florida State’s Jameis Winston seems to be going to Tampa Bay with the first overall pick, and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota will almost certainly be off the board when the Rams pick at No. 10. Would the Rams move up for Mariota? To hear Fisher talk about Winston and Mariota, they’re two players who are worth trading up to draft.

“They’re unique; they’re rare,” Fisher said. “They’ve clearly proven they can win games. Marcus obviously is a little bit more mobile than Winston is. But Winston makes all of the throws. They’re both very impressive to watch.”

Realistically, the Rams probably aren’t going to be able to draft either Winston or Mariota. But a quarterback like Baylor’s Bryce Petty, UCLA’s Brett Hundley or Colorado State’s Garrett Grayson could make sense in the second round. And Foles could make sense as a one-year starter who holds onto the job just until a second-round quarterback is ready to take over.

Which means Foles, who is heading into the final season of his contract, may be changing teams again at this time next year.

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This might be the year the Cowboys actually draft a quarterback

Sports Day AP

Every year around this time, people wonder if the Cowboys are going to draft a quarterback to groom for the future.

And every year, it keeps not happening.

But at least this time, owner Jerry Jones is acknowledging that the time to pick one to learn from Tony Romo might have finally come.

We do have to look to the future relative to quarterback,’’ Jones said, via David Moore of the Dallas Morning News. “It’s starting a time frame where a guy could come in and be a good backup.

“Look at how Romo evolved into the guy he is today. He did a little time with the clip board.”

Romo’s turning 35 next month, and some developmental lead time for the next guy might be nice. But the Cowboys have never bothered trying to draft and develop (which might not work anyway).

Since Jones bought the team and used the first pick in the 1989 NFL Draft on Troy Aikman, they’ve only drafted three other quarterbacks: 1991 fourth-rounder Bill Musgrave, 2011 second-rounder Quincy Carter and 2009 fourth-rounder Stephen McGee.

And we know Jones was eyeballing Johnny Manziel last year, before his better angels (or son Stephen) took the keys from him.

So, after looking at that list, it’s reasonable to think that maybe they shouldn’t waste any more picks. But the latest mention points to the fact that the Cowboys know the clock’s ticking on Romo, and they’ll need a plan.

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Bears sign CB Alan Ball

Alan Ball, Justin Hunter AP

The Bears have added some depth in the secondary.

Alan Ball, a veteran cornerback who has been making the free agent rounds, signed with the Bears today.

Ball, who played his college football at Illinois, was a seventh-round pick of the Cowboys in 2007. He spent five years in Dallas, one in Houston and two in Jacksonville. Last year Ball started the first seven games of the season for the Jaguars before suffering a season-ending arm injury.

The Panthers showed a lot of interest in Ball — so much that there was an erroneous report that he had signed. Ultimately Ball left Carolina without a deal, and now he’s a Bear.

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