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Pitta’s deal reflects tight end franchise tag

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While it likely will do nothing to break the impasse lingering between the Saints and tight end Jimmy Graham, Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta opted to solve the potential tight-end-or-receiver conundrum under the franchise tag by signing a five-year deal.

A league source tells PFT that the contract will average between $6 and $7 million per year.  Multiple reports have pegged the number at the $6.5 million midpoint.

Coincidentally, that’s roughly the same ballpark as the expected tight end franchise tag for 2014.

Why did Pitta blink in the face of what could have been not $33 million over five years but more than $11 million for only one season?  Because it’s hard to walk away from the security that comes with a long-term contract — especially when there was a chance his compensation under the franchise tag would have been only $6.5 million.

And so for the second straight year on the Friday preceding the deadline for applying the franchise tag, the Ravens struck a deal that allows them to avoid issuing the tender.  Last year, quarterback Joe Flacco’s $120.6 million contract helped the Ravens skirt a difficult choice between exposing Flacco to the market under the non-exclusive franchise tag (someone surely would have given up two first-round picks for a crack at him) and setting the stage for paying out more than $80 million in three years via the exclusive version of the tag.

This time around, the Ravens did a deal that sidestepped the potential loss of a grievance that would have jacked up Pitta’s one-year take considerably.  The next question is whether the Saints will put a large enough offer on the table in the next 72 hours to persuade Graham to give up his ability to argue that he’s entitled to an eight-figure salary in 2014 and to accept the significant long-term security that comes from a deal that splits the difference annually between $6.5 million and $11 million.

UPDATE 1:30 p.m. ET:  Per a league source, the deal has a base value of $32 million over five years, which works out to an average of $6.4 million per year.

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

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

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

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

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

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Aaron Rodgers has rekindled “love affair” with football

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Relatively cheap for John Urschel to retire from the Ravens

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

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

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

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

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John Urschel retires from NFL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Photo credit: SportsBusiness Daily.]

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Tramon Williams set to visit with Cardinals

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

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

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

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

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No limits on Rob Gronkowski in training camp practices

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

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

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

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

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Packers put rookie linebacker Vince Biegel on PUP list

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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John Mara gushes about OBJ, loses all leverage in the process

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Giants co-owner John Mara has handed a proverbial blank check to receiver Odell Beckham Jr.

As Beckham closes in on his second NFL contract (and possibly stayed away from offseason workouts in an effort to make it clear that he wants one), Mara has offered an assessment of Beckham that will serve only to add zeros to his next deal.

“Listen, he’s as exciting a player as we have had on this team in my lifetime, and he brings a lot of energy, a lot of big plays to us,” Mara told Steve Serby of the New York Post. “And when you cut through everything else, he actually is a really good kid. He does a lot of wonderful things off the field that people don’t know about. He needs to work on controlling his emotions a little bit more. But when he is on the field, the other teams have to pay attention to him . . . and he strikes fear into the eyes of the other team. As long as you have that ability, he makes your team better. He just adds a lot to us. We really haven’t had a player like that here for a long time.”

The Giants apparently intend to keep Beckham there for a long time. At some point, then, they’ll need to sign him to that new contract. Before that can happen, the contract needs to be negotiated. Mara was asked about the status of the talks.

“They haven’t begun as of yet, but . . . they’ll happen at the appropriate time,” Mara said. “I don’t think we have a time frame on it. But we certainly don’t want to see him playing in another uniform.”

Mara also was asked whether a contract could come during the season.

“That’s possible, yeah,” Mara said. “I wouldn’t have a problem with that occurring. We certainly want to get him signed. Let’s not make it the headline that there’ll be a deal by October or November or something like that because I have no idea. I don’t think we’d be opposed to talking to his agents at some point during the season, yes.”

The Giants presumably want to be sure that Beckham is indeed maturing before making a long-term commitment.

“I think he’s a work in progress, I think he’s going to mature,” Mara said. “I had a great conversation with him in the spring about that. I think he understands that. But he’s always going to be an emotional player, and we’re going to have to live with, hopefully, an occasional and rare outburst every once in a while because he wants to win so badly. But I think he is going to mature. He’s 24 years old.”

Mara is right. And the Giants also are smart to wait a while before giving him the kind of money that reflects full confidence in his maturity. Even if it’s really not all that smart to hype him as a player before getting that deal done, since those quotes from Mara surely will be placed on a laminated card and handed to the Giants’ negotiators at the outset of the first face-to-face session.

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Patriots looking for running back “to play power football for us”

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The Patriots have long mixed and matched running backs with situations in order to keep their offense rolling and this year promises to be no different.

New arrivals Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead have joined holdovers Dion Lewis, James White and Brandon Bolden in a deep backfield, albeit one that doesn’t have a clear choice to fill the big back role that LeGarrette Blount rode to 18 touchdowns last season. Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears said the search for which player is the best fit for that job will be one of the things on tap during training camp.

“Somebody’s got to play big for us,” Fears said, via the team’s website. “We have enough guys who can play finesse football. Somebody’s got to play power football for us so we have to find out who’s going to do that. I think a lot of those guys are capable of that. Freakin’ James White ran the power offense when he was at Wisconsin so, what are we talking about? But he’s got to do it for us here. Not just him, but whether it’s Mike, whether it’s Rex or Brandon Bolden … somebody’s got to step up and be the big back when we need one and all those roles that come up in the game we have to find somebody to fit those roles, and I think we will.”

None of the backs have Blount’s size, but they will be working behind a good offensive line and in an offense with enough threats that defenses will have a hard time selling out against any one option. That should help in all situations, including the ones where New England needs a back to lower the shoulder and pick up two yards to keep the chains moving.

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Rex Ryan still thinks the Bills can be a playoff team

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Rex Ryan thinks the Bills can be a playoff team.

It’s only noteworthy now that he’s the former coach of the Bills, but the now-ESPN analyst took exception with the notion that his former team was going to struggle this year, including a USA Today prediction that they would go 4-12 this year.

There’s no way in hell,” Ryan said, via Alan Pergament of the Buffalo News. “That’s a coach’s dream, to have that kind of prediction because there is no pressure on you but I think that is total bull. If that is the case, why was I fired when I was fired if that’s how bad this team was? So I don’t get that. To saddle them with four wins, I totally disagree with that.

“I feel the Bills will surprise a ton of people. They are kind of trying to float this under the radar stuff, which I get. That’s probably the way to go, that’s the way everybody goes. Undersell and overproduce. I get it. I believe they will have a lot better year than the experts. Could they be a playoff team? They might very well be.”

Ryan went through the litany of reasons the Bills did not last year — injuries to key players, late losses, close games – but remains bullish on his old team in large part because he believes in quarterback Tyrod Taylor.

“I love him,” Ryan said of Taylor. “I think he’s a winner. I think . . . if he has some healthy receivers, a healthy Sammy Watkins, some other guys who can play and give this guy a chance, . . .

“I know he prepares. He has got what it takes to play quarterback in that league.”

Of course, Ryan’s made bold predictions and staked himself to Taylor previously, and is now a television analyst. But it’s interesting that he’s happy about the Bills dealing with low expectations, since he spent so much time building them when he was coaching there.

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Jaylon Smith: First padded practice “a great feeling”

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The wait to see linebacker Jaylon Smith in pads as a member of the Cowboys came to an end on Wednesday.

Smith participated in a padded practice for the first time since suffering torn ligaments in his knee and damage to the peroneal nerve in his leg while playing for Notre Dame in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl, a span that covered 572 days and much doubt about his playing future. The work was limited — eight snaps with the second team — but it left Smith in high spirits.

“That was a great feeling, a huge accomplishment being back on the field,” Smith said, via Brandon George the Dallas Morning News. “It was full pads, so there were a lot of things that come with it. The nitty-gritty and the full contact. It’s something that I embraced, and I was able to get after it. … I can’t remember the last time I had pain in my knee or my foot. My knee feels 100 percent. I can hop on one leg.”

Smith’s fellow linebacker Sean Lee said Smith “moved great” and George’s report from the practice said Smith showed no signs of favoring his left leg during the practice. All of that adds up to a positive step for the player and a base to use to build up to the ones that will have to follow for him to play a significant role come September.

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Thursday morning one-liners

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Bills assistant Juan Castillo got his start as an intern with the Super Bowl-era Bills.

Dolphins coach Adam Gase is making some changes in his second training camp.

The Patriots have to deal with the burden of high expectations this year.

Jets DT Sheldon Richardson has something to prove this year — to someone.

Former Ravens Adalius Thomas and Corey Ivy are back as coaching interns.

The Bengals put sixth-round rookie S Brandon Wilson on the non-football injury list.

The Browns have increased seating for training camp.

While other teams are staying home, the Steelers are embarking on their 52nd training camp at St. Vincent College.

Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins likes what he’s seeing from QB Tom Savage.

The Colts are hoping for a more physical training camp.

The Jaguars are giving rookie Cam Robinson a chance to win the LT job.

The clock is ticking on the Titans and unsigned first-round WR Corey Davis.

Broncos OLB Von Miller is leading in the only way he knows how.

The early returns are positive for Chiefs veterans Derrick Johnson and Travis Kelce.

The Chargers are betting on a rebuilt offensive line.

Raiders QB Derek Carr got the Deion Sanders stamp of approval for his touchdown dance.

Cowboys rookie DE Taco Charlton says he won’t be bullied in the NFL.

Giants G.M. Jerry Reese still has some issues to address.

The Eagles hopes their new young WRs are ready to contribute.

Washington coach Jay Gruden seems comfortable in his role this summer.

The Bears are expecting big improvements in the passing game.

A position-by-position breakdown of the Lions entering training camp.

Packers DT Letroy Guion expected to practice through “pending” legal matter.

The Vikings have a few veterans who could be in their final training camps.

Falcons RB Devonta Freeman has reported to camp, without a new deal.

Panthers rookie Curtis Samuel got dropped off at training camp by his mom.

The Saints are still targeting the third preseason game for C Max Unger’s return.

New Buccaneers WR DeSean Jackson is ready to produce.

Cardinals veteran K Phil Dawson is ready for his latest challenge.

Rams rookie WR Cooper Kupp could win a starting job.

A look at the looming questions for the 49ers entering training camp.

The RB competition will be an interesting one to watch for the Seahawks.

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Cam Newton throws in first practice, will be on “pitch count”

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Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has been seen throwing, but only some short passes in the locker room.

Wednesday night, the former MVP aired a few out for the fans, taking part in the Panthers first practice of training camp.

Another step in the process,” Newton said, via Bryan Strickland of the team’s official website. “It’s a start. Everything felt good, but we have a long way to go to get where I know we can be. Tonight was just fun getting out on the grass in front of the fans and throwing it around a little bit.”

Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Newton would be on a “pitch count” as he recovers from surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder in March. That’s probably a necessity because of the physical component, but Newton clearly needs some work as the Panthers try to modify their offense this offseason.

“You could tell he was eager to get out there. I thought it was a good start,” offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. “He’s not there yet, and we wouldn’t expect him to be. The thing he’s got to do – and we’ve got to do collectively following our trainers and doctors – is not do too much.

“As a coach, you always want guys to get as many reps as they can, especially at that position. We are playing catch-up, but he has six years of experience, and that’s going to have him caught up as quickly as possible. Our goal is to have him ready for Week One.”

There was no sign after one practice that that goal is in jeopardy, but Newton and the Panthers have a lot of work to do between now and then.

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