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Christian Ponder: If I played better, I wouldn’t be in this situation

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No one can accuse Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder of being delusional.

While the Vikings have been pushing the notion of a competition for the starting job that includes Ponder alongside Matt Cassel and first-round pick Teddy Bridgewater, Ponder has been taking fewer reps than the other two this spring. He can see that the “agenda” is to groom Cassel as the starter in the short term and that Bridgewater is the future of the position, a state of affairs he says he understands based on what happened when Ponder was previously in the starting lineup.

“I’ll get opportunities through training camp and preseason to try to earn a spot,” Ponder said, via Charley Walters of the Pioneer Press. “It’s not awkward — I understand what’s going on. I had some opportunities that I didn’t take full advantage of. If I would have played better, I wouldn’t be in the situation here right now. We’ll see how it plays out — football’s a crazy game.”

There’s no impetus to release him and trading him is probably a long shot, which means that Ponder should have plenty of time to mull those missed opportunities from the bench. It is a crazy game and crazy things can happen, but Ponder’s return to the lineup in Minnesota would be a sign that things are moving in the wrong direction for the Vikings.

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Rivers, Chargers continue to do an apparent contract mating dance

Rivers AP

One month and two days ago, jarring news emerged from San Diego:  Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said he has no plans to extend his contract before it expires after the current season — and that he has real concerns about moving his family to Los Angeles.  Coupled with the team’s decision to take a closer look at Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, the facts quickly and naturally led to speculation that the Chargers could trade Rivers to Tennessee for the second overall pick in the draft.

While the story and its potential implications failed to quickly resonate on a widespread basis, the media gradually has recognized the significance of the story.  Left unexplored, however, is the notion that the story is more about laying the foundation for a new contract than it is about Rivers ending his career with a team other than the Chargers.

As one well-connected source explained it to PFT within the past two weeks, far more likely than an imminent divorce between Rivers and the Chargers is the likelihood that player and team have launched a mating dance aimed at getting him signed beyond 2015.  Rivers knows, if the Chargers move to L.A., that he’ll instantly have more value to a team that will be trying to win hearts, minds, and wallets in the nation’s No. 2 market — possibly in direct competition with the Rams or the Raiders.  The Chargers know it, too, but they also know that they won’t be getting extra salary-cap space to accommodate a player’s belief that he has more value to a team in L.A. than he does in San Diego, no matter how accurate that belief is.

Let’s consider one of the first quotes from Rivers, assuming that he’s not thinking about leaving but about leverage.

“I guess things could change, but with all the uncertainty in many aspects, I don’t see it changing before camp gets here, and when camp gets here I’m even more certain to play it out,” Rivers told Acee only four days after the Steelers gave quarterback Ben Roethlisberger a massive, market-value contract.

“Things could change,” Rivers conceded.  But if things don’t change before camp opens, he’s not negotiating a new contract.  In other words (possibly), if the Chargers give Rivers what he wants on a new deal before training camp, he’ll sign on the dotted line.

In more than a month, not much has developed in the way of potential suitors for Rivers.  Some have suggested that he’d be worth two first-round draft picks, a package that a franchise desperate for a franchise quarterback should be willing to instantly sacrifice.

Without a long-term deal, however, it would be a one-year rental with the availability of the franchise tag thereafter.  Besides, while a team like the Browns could be gung-ho about the possibility of adding Rivers to the very long list of starting quarterbacks since 1999, Rivers may have no interest in playing for the Browns or any other team that resides a long way from the land of contention.

Some have suggested Rivers wants out because of the quality of the team around him.  But what other team out there is a high-end quarterback away from instantly contending for a Super Bowl?  Maybe the Texans, possibly the Bills.  Neither team’s name has come up — at all — in the past 33 days. For the most part, the teams that would be most interested in Rivers don’t have the kind of supporting cast that would help him get to where he never has been.

Which brings us back to the Titans.  Apart from Nashville’s proximity to his hometown, why would Rivers want to play for Tennessee?  Arguably, they’re improving on defense with the arrival of Dick LeBeau and several free agents, but they’ve got a long way to go on both sides of the ball to become competitive in the AFC South, and in the AFC generally.

From the Chargers’ perspective, how can they trade Rivers without getting a potential franchise quarterback in return?  That’s possibly why the Chargers have created the impression that they would be interested in trading Rivers to the Titans.  With the second overall pick, the Titans would be guaranteed to get a possible Rivers replacement.

Some wonder whether the end game for the Titans isn’t Mariota but Jameis Winston, with a Rivers deal getting them to No. 2 and then another deal getting them to No. 1.

Moving up to one of the first two picks becomes dangerous territory for the Chargers, who know a thing or two about using the No. 2 overall pick on a quarterback.  In 1998, they climbed up one spot to get in striking distance for Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf.  The Colts took Manning, the Chargers took Leaf, and the rest is a very ugly period in San Diego history.

Still, if the Chargers were intent on trading up to No. 2, it could have been accomplished by now. Rivers would need a new contract in Tennessee, but his agent represents Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt and Titans G.M. Ruston Webster.  Which means that getting Rivers signed over the long haul in Tennessee arguably would be the easiest part of this process.  The real question is whether the Chargers truly want to move Rivers, and whether Rivers truly wants to move to a new team.

The fact that more than a month has passed since the story first hit the NFL’s radar screen without anything tangible happening suggests that contract leverage remains the major part of the equation.  Why else would writers in San Diego now be talking about Rivers retiring in lieu of moving to Los Angeles?  With no serious trade discussions happening (yet) and the Chargers not throwing a huge pile of money at Rivers, his other potential ammunition for getting the team’s attention comes from the School of Favre.

Whether it’s Rivers, Mariota, or someone else, the Chargers can’t go to Los Angeles in 2016 without a franchise quarterback.  The team knows it, Rivers knows it.  But there’s currently no reason to credibly believe the Chargers plan to roll the dice on an unproven rookie and there’s currently no reason to credibly believe Rivers wants to roll the dice on an unproven team.

If both sides were willing to do that, the dice would have been rolling by now.

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Morris Claiborne aiming for training camp return

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Back in January, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones shared his view that cornerback Morris Claiborne has done enough in his oft-criticized and injury-riddled career for the team to exercise their fifth-year option on his rookie contract.

The Cowboys haven’t actually followed through on picking up that option, which they can do until May 3, and they aren’t going to have a chance to see Claiborne doing much in their offseason program before making that call. That program opens on Monday, but Claiborne has only recently started running after last year’s torn patellar tendon and doesn’t expect to be cleared for a full workload until training camp.

It’s the third time in four years that Claiborne will miss the team’s other offseason work because of injuries, something he intimated hasn’t been easy while discussing this return to action.

“I was at a point where people thought I wasn’t going to walk again,” Claiborne said, via FOX Sports Southwest. “I’m in a better place now in my life and in coping with my injuries and coming back from them.”

Claiborne’s $2.6 million salary for this year is guaranteed, so the Cowboys will hope that the better place leads to better play. Claiborne’s first three seasons haven’t offered much reason to hope that it will, but being the sixth overall pick of the draft gives you more rope than a lot of players.

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Stevie Brown drawing interest, expected to sign soon

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Safety Stevie Brown is one of the members of PFT’s All-Unemployed team, which is the rare team that players are happy to get released from in the spring.

Brown may be getting his walking papers sooner rather than later. Adam Schefter of ESPN reports that Brown is mulling a handful of offers and that he’s expected to select one of them in the near future.

Schefter reports the Giants are interested in re-signing Brown, who has spent the last three years with the team and would fill a need they’ve been unable to fill elsewhere in free agency. The Cowboys, Falcons, Raiders and Titans are the other teams that Schefter lists as being in the mix for Brown’s services.

Brown played in every game for the Giants last season and started eight games, but definitely looked like he was shaking off the rust that accumulated while he was missing the entire 2013 season with a torn ACL. He had eight interceptions in a more effective 2012 campaign, which is likely what any team picking him up will be looking for once he gets rolling in 2015.

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Gary Kubiak, Broncos having no issues crossing schemes

Gary Kubiak AP

The Broncos have their first week of offseason work in the books and they spent some of their time in the classroom working on installing new coach Gary Kubiak’s offensive scheme.

There’s been much discussion since Kubiak’s hiring about how his offensive approach will mesh with quarterback Peyton Manning. Kubiak called tailoring the things he likes to do with the things that Manning does well “a big challenge to me right now” earlier in the offseason, but he sounded pleased with the early results.

“Crossing the schemes, so to speak, was very, very easy. It was really more about verbiage than anything else. What I tried to do is the things that were very close, I tried to hang on to the verbiage that they had been talking here in the past, because I think that made it easier for the players,” Kubiak said, via the team’s website.

There were examples of how the two sides would come together in one offense. Offensive coordinator Rick Dennison said the team would line up Manning under center more often than he has in the last couple of seasons while Kubiak offered assurances that the no-huddle would still be a frequent part of the mix next season. Another shift is expected to be a larger role for the run game, something that could help keep Manning fresher later in a season that the Broncos have defined in simple and stark terms.

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Texans RB Alfred Blue has a famous workout partner

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Texans running back Alfred Blue had a solid rookie season in 2014, racking up 528 yards as Arian Foster’s top backup.

As Blue tries to hold his spot and earn a bigger role in his second NFL campaign, he is working with a personal trainer, as the Houston Chronicle noted Saturday. That’s not uncommon, but this is: One of Blue’s workout partners happens to be Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. And as Blue sees it, Peterson is primed for a strong return to NFL play this season.

“You see it in his eyes: ‘I’m going to show the world. When I get back out there, I’m going to break it this time,’ ” Blue said, according to Brian T. Smith of the Chronicle.

For his part, Blue, who turns 24 the week of the 2015 NFL Draft, told the Chronicle he does not want the Texans to “overlook me.”

With that in mind, Blue is not taking anything for granted.

“They tell you every year that nobody’s set, nobody’s safe,” Blue told the Chronicle. “You’ve got to come in every year like you just got drafted or like you’re an undrafted free agent trying to make the team.”

That Blue knows he cannot rest on his laurels is a good sign. He flashed his readiness for a bigger workload as a rookie, when he racked up 156 yards on 36 carries in his first career start. His willingness to work on his own to stay sharp suggests he’ll be ready the next time his number is called.

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Buccaneers spoke to district attorney as part of Winston research

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During Friday’s Outside the Lines on ESPN, Bob Ley said that William Meggs, the local district attorney in Tallahassee, claimed that he has not been contacted by the NFL or any team.  According to a Buccaneers source, however, that information isn’t accurate.

Per the source, the Buccaneers have spoken to the district attorney’s office as part of an extensive due diligence process in which the team has engaged regarding Winston.

The communication occurred well in advance of Friday’s report, the source explained.  And it makes sense; having the first overall pick imposes an obligation to spend plenty of time and resources to research the players who potentially may be selected.  With Winston, that time and resources have been devoted, both as to the allegations made by Erica Kinsman and all other incidents that relate to him in any way.

UPDATE 10:03 p.m. ET:  Per the source, the Buccaneers communicated directly with assistant district attorney Georgia Cappleman, who did the bulk of the work on Kinsman’s claims.

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Mike Williams, Brad Smith added to PFT’s All-Unemployed Team

Mike Williams AP

Since published last week, PFT’s All-Unemployed Team has undergone a little turnover, with center Stefen Wisniewski (Jacksonville) and Michael Crabtree (Oakland) among those departing for the ranks of the job-holding.

With Crabtree gone, we had one spot open at wide receiver. However, we decided to add two receivers to the squad.

And both receivers, as it turns out, were one-time Bills.

However, Mike Williams and Brad Smith are different propositions for NFL clubs. The 27-year-old Williams has three 60-catch seasons to his credit. The 31-year-old Smith, on the other hand, has never caught more than 32 passes in a season.

Williams might have more upside. However, Smith can be used multiple ways. Smith has 134 career carries; Williams has one. Moreover, Smith is a former collegiate quarterback, and he has more special teams experience than Williams.

Williams might be a player who can still be developed. Smith, though, can do several things.

Whom do you prefer?

The answer probably depends on the club.

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Twenty years ago Saturday, Joe Montana called it a career

Joe Montana of the Kansas City Chiefs Getty Images

As the 49ers’ Twitter feed points out, Saturday is the 20th anniversary of quarterback Joe Montana’s retirement from the NFL.

Montana’s departure came after two seasons with Kansas City, which traded a first-round pick for him in April 1993.

While Montana wasn’t able to finish his career with the franchise with whom he won four Super Bowls, the trade worked out well for him, the Niners and the Chiefs.

Let’s review.

The Chiefs made the postseason in both of Montana’s seasons as a starter. He led the club to a pair of playoff wins in ’93 — the franchise’s last two postseason victories to date. His Kansas City seasons were a bookend to a spectacular career that landed him in the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.

The 49ers, meanwhile, ended up trading the Chiefs’ first-round pick (No. 18, 1993) to Phoenix, as ProSportsTransactions.com notes. The 49ers then traded down again, landing at No. 26 in Round One, where they selected defensive Dana Stubblefield, who was a starter on their dominant Super Bowl XXIX-winning club of 1994.

But the 49ers’ draft haul from the Montana trade didn’t stop there.

In trading down for Stubblefield, the 49ers landed the No. 81 overall pick, a third-rounder. They packaged a second-round pick (No. 56) and the 81st pick to the Los Angeles Raiders for a second-round pick (No. 41).

It gets better. The 49ers then moved that 1993 second-round pick to the Chargers for San Diego’s first-round pick in the 1994 NFL Draft (No. 15 overall). The Chargers, for the record, took tailback Natrone Means, who helped that franchise get to Super Bowl XXIX.

So what did the 49ers do with the Chargers’ first-round pick? According to ProSportsTransactions.com, the 49ers traded it to the Los Angeles Rams for the No. 7 pick to take defensive tackle Bryant Young — who, like Stubblefield, was a starter at defensive tackle right off the bat. And when the Chargers and 49ers met in Super Bowl XXIX, Means rushed for just 33 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries.

To review: Joe Montana helped the 49ers win four Super Bowls, and when the franchise moved on from him, it picked up a couple of key pieces needed to win a fifth Super Bowl.

There’s a reason why the 49ers were as good as they were for as long as they were. Did they ever know talent, and did they ever know how to work the draft.

The words “Joe Montana, third-round pick” ought to ring a bell, too.

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Gates says he’s not looking to play less

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Chargers tight end Antonio Gates recently said that, instead of playing “the whole game” in 2015, he’s more likely to play only in those situation where he’s likely to get the ball.  He now says he didn’t say what it sounded like he said.

“For me, to put in all this work in all these years and have the opportunity to play and say I don’t want to play, I don’t know where people got that from,” Gates told Michael Gehlken of U-T San Diego.

They got it from his own words:  “With injuries and whatnot, I played a little bit more than they expected me to play last season,” Gates told TheMMQB.com.  “I was playing the whole game.  How I feel next year, it depends on how much volume they have me doing.  I’d like to come in on third-and-7s, red zones, those situations.  That’s what my contribution is at anyway.”

“It was probably a misquote or a misunderstanding,” Gates explained to Gehlken.  “I ain’t asking to play less.  Every time I’m in a game, I feel like I have the opportunity to make a play.  Why would I want to be on the sideline?  That defeats the purpose.  The only way you can contribute is by being in the game.”

So Gates doesn’t want to play less in 2015.  Regardless of whether he said he does.

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Marcedes Lewis takes pay cut to stay in Jacksonville

Marcus Gilchrist, Marcedes Lewis AP

Jaguars tight end Marcedes Lewis was on the trade block, but not anymore.

Lewis has agreed to a new deal and will stay in Jacksonville.

“I’m pumped to be a part of something exciting and be a big part of it,” Lewis told the Florida Times-Union.

The reports about Lewis’s new contract are calling it a “restructuring” and not a “pay cut,” but a pay cut is what it is. Lewis will turn 31 next month, was scheduled to cost $8.2 million against the Jaguars’ salary cap this season, and caught just 18 passes last year. Obviously, the Jaguars wouldn’t have kept him at his previous cap number.

Now Lewis will stick around another year, and although he’s no longer the top tight end in town after the arrival of Julius Thomas, he’ll get a chance to be a part of turning the Jaguars around.

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Bryant, Wells dispute lingers

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The sending in February of a cease-and-desist letter to the former adviser of Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant hasn’t resolved the situation.

Per multiple sources, Wells still has not complied with specific requests made at the end of the February 20 letter, a copy of which PFT has obtained.

“You have until 5 p.m. EST, Monday, February 23, 2015 to provide us with the requested money and materials, as well as written confirmation of your compliance with the demands set forth in this letter,” the communication from Jordan W. Siev to Wells states.  “Absent your full and immediate compliance with these demands, we will take all appropriate actions to enforce our client’s rights, which may include commencing litigation against you to assert claims of conversion, breach of fiduciary duty and fraud, among other claims, seeking a preliminary injunction, and seeking an award of compensatory and punitive damages, and reimbursement of all of our costs and attorneys’ fees resulting from your actions.”

The letter specifically refers to a payment received by Wells on Bryant’s behalf from BioSteel Sports Supplements.  Bryant’s representatives contend that Wells kept the money.

It’s unclear at this point whether any legal action will be taken by Bryant against Wells.  According to one source, the primary purpose of the letter was to terminate the power of attorney Wells previously held on behalf of Bryant.

Ultimately, Bryant has the right to change agents and advisers, whenever he wants and for whatever reason.  Bryant made a comment Friday indicating he realizes his agents and advisers work for him, not the other way around.

“I’m the one making the decisions on who to trust and who to be surrounded by,” Bryant said, via Brandon George of the Dallas Morning News.  “I’ve surrounded myself with people who I think deserve to be trusted.”

This implies that Bryant believes Wells and other former representatives/advisors didn’t deserve to be trusted.  Which could further alienate Wells, who had been Bryant’s closest confidant and adviser during the early days of his NFL career.

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Wisniewski lands in Jacksonville

Wis AP

Center Stefen Wisniewski has a new home.  Finally.

The free-agent lineman, who spent the first four seasons of his career with the Raiders, has agreed to a one-year deal with the Jaguars, via Adam Schefter of ESPN.  The decision came after visits and/or discussions with the Titans, Jaguars, Patriots, Buccaneers, Seahawks, Bears, and Washington.

The short duration of the deal isn’t surprising; at this stage of the free-agency process, the big money is long gone.  So he’ll try to have a big year in Jacksonville and hit the market again in 2016.

A Pittsburgh native, Wisniewski played from the moment he arrived as a second-round pick in 2011, with 61 appearances and 61 starts.  As a rookie, Wisniewski played left guard; he shifted to center in 2012.  Wisniewski became displaced in Oakland when the Raiders signed Rodney Hudson last month.

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Rex Ryan goes after Jace Amaro again

Rex AP

Former Jets coach Rex Ryan continues to hold Jets tight end Jace Amaro accountable for his contention that the Jets weren’t held accountable in 2014, Ryan’s last one with the team.

It’s not the truth,” Ryan said Saturday morning on WFAN radio, via Dom Cosentino of NJ.com.

Rex then became more circumspect in his remarks about Amaro:  “That kid’s a little . . . he’s going to get . . . we’ll see what happens,” Rex told Kimberly Jones..

“I just know it’s not the truth, and for him or anybody else to pop off like that, I think is absolutely a joke,” Ryan said.  “Now, look, if David Harris would have said something, or D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Nick Mangold, or someone, I would be hurt by it.  I would be absolutely devastated by it.  But a kid like that?  Nah.  I know him, and that doesn’t bother me one bit.”

If it did bother Rex, his comments presumably would be even stronger.  If that’s even possible.

He’s full of sh-t,” Rex recently told Jenny Vrentas of TheMMQB.com, “and I’ll remind him of that when we play him.  Look, we weren’t perfect, and I never said we were going to be perfect.  But that’s a f–king b.s. comment.”

So, basically, I don’t know whether I’d rather see the Bills face the Patriots on the first Thursday night of the season, or the Bills against the Jets on Sunday night.

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Medical re-check provides good news on Todd Gurley

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Former Georgia running back Todd Gurley appears poised to be the first running back selected in the first round of the draft in three years.

Gurley, who looked like a sure-thing first-round pick before suffering a torn ACL in November, had his surgically reconstructed knee inspected by doctors as part of the NFL’s medical-recheck today in Indianapolis. According to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network, Gurley’s knee checked out fine and there’s optimism that he’ll be good to go in time for training camp.

That likely means Gurley will go in the first round of the draft, something that we haven’t seen since 2012. In 2013 the first running back selected was Giovani Bernard with the fifth pick in the second round, and in 2014 the first running back selected was Bishop Sankey with the 22nd pick in the second round.

When healthy, Gurley is a powerful runner and kickoff returner with breakaway speed. If NFL teams are convinced he’ll be healthy in time to play a full rookie season, then he should be a high pick.

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Steelers’ doctors clear Jaelen Strong’s wrist

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We noted yesterday that former Arizona State receiver Jaelen Strong would miss Saturday’s medical re-check in Indianapolis, and that he had a visit with the Steelers. As it turned out, Strong’s visit allowed the Steelers’ doctors to give Strong’s injured wrist a thorough check.

Adam Schefter of ESPN reports that Strong went through a battery of tests on his wrist during his visit to Pittsburgh. According to Schefter, the Steelers’ doctors cleared Strong and are sending the results of his checkup to other teams.

It’s odd that Strong is getting the re-check from the Steelers’ doctors rather than going through the process that most players recovering from injuries go through in Indianapolis. It’s unclear whether every other team will be satisfied with getting a report from the Steelers’ staff.

Despite a report that Strong would need surgery to repair the broken bone in his wrist, Strong says he played five games through the injury and is fine.

Strong will attend the draft and is viewed as a late-first or early-second-round pick.

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