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Lovie Smith likes what he sees from Mike Evans

mikeevans AP

It didn’t take long for Buccaneers rookie receiver Mike Evans to impress coach Lovie Smith.

Smith said after watching Evans on the field at the Bucs’ rookie minicamp that he thinks he’s found a keeper in his first-round draft pick, who is showing off the same great hands he showed off at Texas A&M.

“You talk to the players about doing something to make the coaches notice them,” Smith said, via the Tampa Bay Times. “And seeing how guys can perform on the center stage. we have a first-round draft pick. Great catch by Mike Evans out there today but he’s been doing that all week. He’s a good football player.”

Evans was less impressed with himself, however, saying that he realized after doing some conditioning work with the Bucs’ veterans that he’s not in good enough shape.

“It was good getting my feet back wet,” Evans said. “But after conditioning, I was a little out of shape. I threw up after conditioning. I was the only person. But I’m getting back in shape and it’s feeling good.”

Smith hopes that Evans can make opposing defensive coordinators throw up this season.

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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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Giants have high hopes for a “dominant” offense

Atlanta Falcons v New York Giants Getty Images

The Giants had a mediocre offense last season, the first year with Ben McAdoo as the coordinator. This year, they expect much bigger things.

That’s the word from Giants running back Rashad Jennings, who said quarterback Eli Manning is going to take a big step forward in his second season playing in McAdoo’s system.

I think we’re going to have a dominant offense,” Jennings said, via NJ.com. “Eli is really comfortable in the offense now — being able to control a lot from the line of scrimmage.”

The Giants’ decision to sign running back Shane Vereen could be bad news for Jennings, who may get fewer opportunities this season with Vereen in town. But Jennings sees Vereen’s presence as a plus.

“It’s going to be big,” Jennings said. “Any time you can add depth at any position, any room, it’s valuable. He’s a guy that’s been on a team that knows the recipe of winning. We extract from that. We’ll be able to add. Also, he’s a great catcher from the backfield. So that’s going to entice the coordinator to throw to the running backs more. So I’m happy with that. He’s a good player and from everything I understand he’s a good teammate. I’m glad to have him aboard.”

The Giants’ offense did take a step forward last year — even mediocre in 2014 is better than what they were in 2013 — but they need to take another step this year. Jennings sounds very confident they’ll do just that.

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Hernandez fiancee: I asked him if he killed Odin, he said no, that was it

shayanna AP

Aaron Hernandez’s fiancee testified in court today that he told her he did not murder their friend Odin Lloyd.

Shayanna Jenkins, who prosecutors say helped Hernandez get rid of evidence after Lloyd was shot and killed, testified in front of a judge — but not in front of the jurors — and said that Hernandez said that she asked her fiance directly whether he murdered Lloyd. He told her that he didn’t, and she didn’t press the matter.

“When Aaron got back from the police station, when I had found out that Odin was murdered, I asked him if he did it and he said no. That was the extent of our conversation,” she said.

Jenkins was also asked about a text message from Hernandez in which he wrote, “Go in back of the screen in movie room when u get home an there is the box.” Prosecutors allege that was Hernandez telling Jenkins where he had hidden the murder weapon and that she should get rid of it before police searched the house. Jenkins admits that she took a box from the home and threw it in a dumpster after that, but she says that was just a coincidence and that the text wasn’t an instruction for her to do so.

According to Michele Steele of ESPN, Jenkins mouthed “I love you” to Hernandez as she walked out of the courtroom.

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Jason Garrett: Catch rule robbed the NFL of a classic finish

Divisional Playoffs - Dallas Cowboys v Green Bay Packers Getty Images

Cowboys coach Jason Garrett believes that a better-written NFL rule would have given Dez Bryant a catch at the end of the playoff game in Green Bay — and would have given the NFL an all-time playoff classic.

Garrett pointed out that the Cowboys would have had first-and-goal at the 1-yard line, setting up, potentially, a game as memorable as another Cowboys-Packers battle, the Ice Bowl.

“To have the Cowboys inside the 1-yard line at Lambeau Field with 4:45 to go 47 years after Bart Starr had a quarterback sneak is great for our game,” Garrett said, via the Star-Telegram. “To have Aaron Rodgers standing on the other sideline waiting for his opportunity to come back, that’s what we want. And Dez Bryant getting three feet and a forearm down I think should be a catch in in our league. I think we should find ways to make sure it is going forward. It has nothing to do with our game, our team, its about how to right the rule going forward.”

As it is, that game will be remembered more for a great play that didn’t count than for a great ending.

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Strange developments at Hernandez trial

Hernandez AP

On Thursday, a bomb threat interrupted the first Aaron Hernandez murder trial.  On Friday, things could get even more interesting.

The day has begun with Judge E. Susan Garsh individually questioning the jurors, in the presence of the lawyers and Hernandez.  Via Michael McCann of Sports Illustrated, the jurors were standing two feet from Hernandez while fielding and answering questions.

It’s not known what the jurors are being asked, but it’s entirely possible (if not probable) that the judge and the lawyers are ensuring that each juror will continue to serve without bias or prejudice in the aftermath of Thursday’s events, for which an arrest has been made.

Once testimony resumes, Hernandez’s fiancée, Shayanna Jenkins, is expected to testify.  Via Michele Steele of ESPN, Jenkins has arrived in court wearing her engagement ring.  Which suggests that she won’t be flipping on Hernandez today, regardless of the immunity from prosecution that she has received.

Then again, the presence of the ring will make her testimony even more credible, if she provides information that hurts Hernandez’s case.  Prosecutors believe Jenkins disposed of the murder weapon.

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Despite concussions, Troy Aikman says he feels good in retirement

2012 NFL Honors - Arrivals Getty Images

Both the book League of Denial and the PBS documentary that draws from it devote a great deal of attention to Troy Aikman, who played in a Super Bowl after suffering a serious concussion in the NFC Championship Game, and who retired in part because of concerns about concussions. But 15 years after his playing career ended, Aikman says he’s doing fine.

Aikman told Richard Deitsch of TheMMQB.com that he had a thorough neurological exam that gave him a clean bill of health. Aikman also said he has always felt that he remains mentally sharp and has never had any issues such as memory loss that would affect his ability to work as a broadcaster.

“It certainly gave me some peace of mind,” Aikman said. “But the reason I have never been concerned is that the job that I have with Fox is a mental exercise—recalling numbers and names and things of that nature. I am able to do that pretty readily. I do think broadcasting with Fox keeps my mind active, and I think it helps.”

Aikman says he would neither encourage a child to play football nor discourage a child from playing football, as he views it as an individual decision that may be right for some and wrong for others. But he’s clear that from his perspective, he’s benefited from playing the game.

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Falcons G.M. bracing for losing a valuable draft pick

Dimitroff AP

Falcons General Manager Thomas Dimitroff knows something’s coming. But he says he just doesn’t know what it is yet.

Via D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Dimitroff said during a radio interview on 680 The Fan that he’s bracing for bad news, after the team admitted piping in artificial crowd noise.

“We are just so full of scenarios and that’s kind of how we approach the offseason as it is,” Dimitroff said. “We’ve been very detailed on how we are going to approach things if in fact we have availability at certain points in the draft.”

During the league meetings, the team was informed their penalty was likely to be announced next week, and that the team was privately told what it would be, but Dimitroff said he hadn’t heard yet.

“I do not know at this point, officially,” Dimitroff said. “I have not gotten word from the league. I believe that we’ll be expecting something. Usually, when you get indication from the league it is via print. . . .

“I’m reading the same things that you are. Obviously, it’s been a process for us.”

And for a team that’s still trying to rebuild a defense, losing what could be a second- or third-round pick would be a significant hit.

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NFL still not talking about Indiana law

2011 NFC Championship: Green Bay Packers v Chicago Bears Getty Images

Plenty of institutions that pump millions into Indiana by staging events there have expressed concern about the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing law that ostensibly protects religious freedom by giving business owners the right to discriminate against gay and lesbian customers.  The NFL inexplicably has not.

Last year, the NFL spoke out as Arizona closed in on passing a similar law.  Arizona eventually opted not to proceed with a plan to legalize the shunning of people who live their private lives in a way that others feel compelled to care about, and to condemn.

This time around, the NFL has said nothing.  The league office had no comment on Thursday when PFT specifically asked for a reaction to the new Indiana law, and in nearly 24 hours since then, nothing has emanated from P.R.-obsessed 345 Park Avenue regarding the passage of a law that provides a license to discriminate in a state where an NFL franchise is located, where the Super Bowl has been played and likely will return, and where the Scouting Combine is staged every February.

Others have opted for something other than silence.  The NCAA, which soon will hold one of its marquee events in Indianapolis, had this to say about the situation:  “The NCAA national office and our members are deeply committed to providing an inclusive environment for all our events.  We are especially concerned about how this legislation could affect our student-athletes and employees.  We will work diligently to assure student-athletes competing in, and visitors attending, next week’s Men’s Final Four in Indianapolis are not impacted negatively by this bill.  Moving forward, we intend to closely examine the implications of this bill and how it might affect future events as well as our workforce.”

Likewise, the major gaming convention known as Gen Con threatened to take its business elsewhere if the law passes:  “Gen Con proudly welcomes a diverse attendee base, made up of different ethnicities, cultures, beliefs, sexual orientations, gender identities, abilities, and socio-economic backgrounds.  Legislation that could allow for refusal of service or discrimination against our attendees will have a direct negative impact on the state’s economy, and will factor into our decision-making on hosting the convention in the state of Indiana in future years.”

So why has there been nothing from the NFL?  “Our policies emphasize tolerance and inclusiveness, and prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or any other improper standard,” the league said last year regarding the Arizona proposal.

The NFL’s failure to reiterate that position in relation to the Indiana law suggests that maybe the NFL’s position has changed.  If that’s not the case, the sooner the NFL says so, the better.

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Bears hoping to get more from Jared Allen this season

Chicago Bears v Carolina Panthers Getty Images

The Bears didn’t get much out of Jared Allen last year after a bout with pneumonia, and now they’re shifting to a defense he’s not really suited for.

But since they’re on the hook for an $11.5 million roster bonus anyway, they’re trying to figure out how to maximize his talents.

According to Adam Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times, Bears coach John Fox and General Manager Ryan Pace met with Allen this week, and they’re hoping to see a jump in production.

“It was good to touch base and share some ideas,” Fox said. “He’ll get that opportunity to compete, and he can be one of those guys who makes a big jump.”

Allen turns 33 next week, and he’ll be playing outside linebacker in the 3-4 defense new coordinator Vic Fangio will be installing. Allen has always said that’s something he’s not comfortable with, but they’ll also use enough four-man fronts in sub packages to allow him to rush the passer the way he’s comfortable.

But being sick last year kept him from showing it, and Fox said he thinks that explains the dip to a career-low 5.5 sacks.

“Physically, he had a rough year last year,” Fox said. “In particular for big guys or really any position, your weight, your strength level, all those things physically have a lot to do with how you perform on Sundays.

“In his case, he got pneumonia and lost 19, 20 pounds, and in the middle of a marathon, that is hard to recover from. That’s an analogy I use for a football season. So I don’t know if it was his best season. [But] there are reasons [for his struggles], not excuses.”

The Bears also brought in Pernell McPhee in free agency, and have Lamarr Houston to play outside linebacker. Allen’s obviously not playing as a base 3-4 end, so they’ll have to adjust on the fly, and see how much he has left.

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Marshawn Lynch to appear in “Beast Mode” music video

Lynch AP

It’s been a good year for Marshawn Lynch, even without getting the chance to become the face of the nation.

Lynch, who has received a $5 million raise for returning to the Seahawks, gone to Turkey to promote football, and has a movie about him (although pretty much everyone — including Lynch — thinks it’s not very good), will now appear in the video for Beast Mode, a new song from Ludacris.

“I met him and literally within like two minutes I felt like we were family,” Ludacris a/k/a Chris Bridges told ESPN earlier this week.  “I don’t know what it is.  He’s real cool, real laid back guy.  He was a fan.  He was talking about how much his mom was a fan, so I told him I’m a fan of his.

“We inspire each other.  That’s why it was great for us to get together.  When everybody sees the video you’ll think it’s a great, great concept to put these two things together — music and football.”

The song isn’t the only thing that carries Lynch’s nickname.  In Seattle, the “Beast Mode O.G.” marijuana strain has been followed up with “Beast Mode 2.0″ (or “Beast Mode Blue Fire”).  But even though Lynch lives in one of the two states in which marijuana is legal, noted marijuana aficionado Snoop Dogg says Lynch doesn’t partake.

My homeboy got a career to play,” Snoop Dogg recently told TMZ, via seattlepi.com.  “He’s still in the NFL.  He’s got a Commissioner to deal with.  Somebody named it after him.”

So Marshawn doesn’t smoke at all?

“No, he does not. I do it for him,” Snoop Dogg said.

For any player not in the drug-testing program, the reality is that he can smoke at will after taking his annual test for street drugs.  But with the window for testing opening on April 20, any player inclined to sample the Beast Mode blend should have stopped last week, since it takes 30 days for the metabolites to exit the system.

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Michael Sam: “I am not the only gay person in the NFL”

Michael Sam AP

Michael Sam was going to be the first openly gay player in the NFL, when he was drafted by the Rams last year.

But he said he quickly found out he’d have been far from the only gay player in the league.

During an appearance at an event in Dallas last night, Sam declined to offer a number, but said there were many players who reached out to him last offseason to thank him.

I am not the only gay person in the NFL,” Sam said, via Charean Williams of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “I’m just saying there is a lot of us. I respect the players that did reach out to me and had the courage to tell me that they were also gay, but they do not have the same courage as I do to come out before I even played a down in the NFL.

“Was it a risky move? Yes. But at that moment, the reason why I came out is I thought it wasn’t going to be a big deal. Maybe I was naive. Maybe I thought it was 2014, and people will understand that there’s gay NFL players. There’s gay athletes everywhere. But I was clearly wrong. It was a huge deal.

“The players who have reached out to me and told me about their sexual orientation, it just means a lot. But I will never say anything about who they are, what teams they are [on]. I’m just saying there’s some famous people, and I’m not the only one.”

Of course, Sam’s not an NFL player at the moment, and after his subpar showing at last week’s veteran combine, he might not be one anytime soon. But he said he was confident he’d play this season, indicating a stint in the CFL might be in his future.

Sam had a stint on the Cowboys practice squad after the Rams cut him, and doesn’t have anything pending this season. He said he didn’t think the reason was his sexual orientation, but thinks his unemployment could be the reason others haven’t made the decision to come out.

“Hopefully I’m not being discriminated [against] because I’m gay,” Sam said. “I don’t believe that I’m being discriminated [against] because I’m gay. I just want to know if I’m truly not in the NFL, it’s because of talent. Let it be because of my talents. But you’ve got to prove that I can’t play this game. If you look at the film, clearly I can. So, I’ll leave it at that. . . .

“Dancing with the Stars is my employer. That’s my main source of income. … I’m unemployed, and I don’t believe I’m out of the NFL because I’m gay. But if it was a reason, it can hurt their livelihood, and you don’t want to take that chance.”

Regardless his personal life, Sam’s lack of prototype size and speed is the primary reason he doesn’t have a spot on an NFL roster at the moment. He was a good college pass-rusher (11.5 sacks and the SEC defensive player of the year), and a stint in Canada might help him put together enough game tape to get another shot at the NFL.

And if he does, perhaps others will join him in his openness.

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John Fox: Cutler will have to earn the job in an open competition

New Orleans Saints v Chicago Bears Getty Images

The Bears are on the hook to pay Jay Cutler a guaranteed $15 million this year and $10 million next year. But that doesn’t mean Cutler is their long-term starter. It doesn’t even mean Cutler is the Bears’ Week One starter.

Bears coach John Fox says Cutler will have to beat out Jimmy Clausen and David Fales if he’s going to be the starter because everyone on the roster will get an equal chance to earn the starting job.

It’s all an open competition,” Fox said, via CSNChicago.com. “Obviously you’ve got to start somewhere and my experience in football, really in anything, it’s not where you start a competition; it’s where you finish it. But we’ve got to start the race with some kind of lineup. We have not discussed that in depth. We have not presented it to our players yet. I kind of have it in my brain and then they compete.”

Cutler was benched for Clausen late last season, but it’s awfully hard to believe that Clausen could win the starting job this year. Fox may say he wants everyone to compete in training camp, but the Bears aren’t paying Cutler all that money to hold a clipboard.

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Jeremy Maclin’s gone, but says “I still believe in Chip”

Maclin AP

When LeSean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin, Trent Cole and Todd Herremans made plans to attend a fundraiser last night, they were Eagles. Since then, they became former Eagles, part of a flurry of offseason activity that sent them all packing, along with quarterback Nick Foles.

That means their starting quarterback and leading receiver and rusher have all departed in a short time.

“If you would have told me two years ago that that would be the case, I would have laughed,” Maclin said, via Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “This is a business, man. Things like that happen.”

Of course, Maclin made his own business decision, taking a $55 million deal from the Chiefs, of which he said: “It wasn’t really about money.”

As much as anything, it was about coach Chip Kelly’s vision for the team, which Maclin said he still had confidence in.

“I still believe in Chip,” Maclin said. “I think Chip’s going to do great things here. I have the utmost respect for him. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get something worked out. But at the end of the day I’m very excited about playing for Kansas City and playing for Big Red [Andy Reid].”

Having a comfortable place to land was a help, because Kelly’s showing there are few sacred cows in his herd, which will lead to many more Eagles becoming former Eagles.

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Dont’a Hightower to miss 6-7 months after shoulder surgery

Super Bowl XLIX - New England Patriots v Seattle Seahawks Getty Images

When the Patriots open their offseason program in a few weeks, they’re going to be without a few key players after their Super Bowl run.

But one important part of their defense is up in the air for the start of the regular season.

According to Ben Volin of the Boston Globe, Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who will miss around six or seven months after surgery to repair a torn right labrum on Feb. 10.

That puts the opener in doubt  for Hightower, who played nearly every snap down the stretch for the Patriots. He sat out the finale against the Bills since there was nothing on the line, but played 321 of a possible 327 over the final five games he played, including a touchdown-saving tackle of Marshawn Lynch near the goal-line.

Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer also had surgery to repair a torn labrum, though he’s expected to be ready for the start of training camp.

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