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Preseason Power Rankings No. 10: Carolina Panthers

Dave Gettleman, Ron Rivera AP

There were points last season when it appeared time to start writing the obituary for Panthers coach Ron Rivera and the team built by former General Manager Marty Hurney.

Then Rivera’s team did a funny thing — they forgot how to lose.

The Panthers won 11 of their final 12 games last year, and only a loss to the 49ers in the playoffs spoiled an unpredictable run built on defense and a singular talent at quarterback.

Of course, they spent the offseason subtracting more than they added, cutting past fat into meat and bone to try to keep a good roster intact.

But that’s what they’re going to have to do for another year or so (when it’s time to pay the next wave of young stars), and they’ve done it well.

Strengths.

In quarterback Cam Newton, the Panthers have perhaps the best bail-out-a-play guy in the NFL.

It seems no play is over for Newton, who has matured as a passer while remaining dangerous as a runner. His ability in short-yardage helped spark last year’s belief that they could win, and his growth as a passer helped him make plenty of big plays through the air as well.

Newton will need to be incredible, because they took away most of his help (more on that in a moment). But he is incredible, and looks comfortable running an offense which is far from cutting-edge.

It doesn’t need to be complex it if works, and he’s reached what appears to be a good relationship with play-caller Mike Shula.

They also have what might be the best defensive front seven in the NFL.

They have a pair (for a year anyway) of double-digit sack ends, which only required using more than 20 percent of their cap to keep them.

Greg Hardy got the franchise tag after an impressive salary drive (7.0 of his 15.0 sacks came in the final two games), while overpaid-but-productive veteran Charles Johnson has been a steady presence (44.0 sacks the last four season) against the run and pass.

Paired with a interior that included 2013 top picks Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, and a group of linebackers led by Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, the Panthers can match personnel with anyone in the league.

It’s a front designed to take the pressure off a suspect back, but it did just that a year ago, succeeding without much pedigreed talent in the secondary.

Weaknesses.

As long as you spend so much on defensive ends, you’ve got to scrimp somewhere. So the fact they’re using temps in the secondary is nearly a non-issue.

What they’re doing without on offense is alarming.

The Panthers lost two of the five or six best players in franchise history when Steve Smith was cut and Jordan Gross retired.

Smith was cut for reasons that exceeded age and production, as all the wideouts who caught a pass last year are gone. If he wasn’t so much of a grouch, they’d have possibly let him ride off into the sunset next year, but they wanted to let Newton take control of the locker room as well as the huddle.

Instead, they signed just-a-guys Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant to play stable-pony for first-rounder Kelvin Benjamin.

A good running game (everybody’s healthy for a change) and tight end Greg Olsen take some of the pressure off this odd lot of guys to perform. Which is good, because that seems unlikely.

But for all the consternation about the receivers, what happened to their offensive line is worse.

They needed an upgrade from right tackle Byron Bell, but instead they’re letting him compete for the left tackle job along with converted defensive tackle Nate Chandler. They made a run at former Bengals tackle Anthony Collins in free agency, but otherwise did nothing to improve the team’s most glaring weakness in a post-Gross environment. They’ll find out in a hurry how much they miss Gross, which might make management re-think squeezing veterans into dramatic pay cuts in the future.

The middle of the line could be OK, with center Ryan Kalil there to help along a young group. If former second-rounder Amini Silatolu plays to his pre-injury form, they have a chance. Third-rounder Trai Turner is going to have a chance to win the right guard job, and might have the quickest path to the starting lineup of any of their rookies.

Changes.

Perhaps the biggest change for the Panthers was in Rivera himself.

Once a guy with a 2-14 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, Rivera started rolling the dice and it kept working.

It wasn’t just going for fourth downs (but that’s easier when you have a giant quarterback and a big fat fullback such as Mike Tolbert), there was a different air about the Panthers last season.

They went from playing to unfulfilled potential and bloated salaries to playing like a team with something to prove.

In fact, they did have plenty to prove, as a losing record last season might have triggered a huge house-cleaning by new G.M. Dave Gettleman.

He’s talked for two years about the cap issues created by the previous administration (the cost of owner Jerry Richardson spending none of the money before his lockout, and then spending it all at once afterward). Gettleman’s done a good job of filling in the blanks with day laborers, and appears to have done so again.

Losing players such as Mike Mitchell and Captain Munnerlyn shouldn’t sting as much, considering they were a minimum-wage free agent and a seventh-round pick. He found spare parts before, and has again, with cornerback Antoine Cason and safeties Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud in line to be this year’s beneficiaries of a pass rush.

Camp Battles.

The Panthers need to find a pair of starting wideouts, and it would be swell if Benjamin would grow into the job in a hurry. Beyond that, they have a bunch of unproven receivers who will be angling for significant roles, from journeyman haircut Tiquan Underwood to kids including Marvin McNutt and Tavarres King.

There’s also some shuffling among the offensive line jobs and in the secondary, with plenty of roles to fill.

One guy who might need to win a job is former starting safety Charles Godfrey, who tore his Achilles last year and then was forced into a pay cut just to have a chance. Godfrey could end up playing as their nickel, and he has some corner skills from his college days. Whether he can run remains to be seen.

Prospects.

It’s hard to not expect regression, considering the way the Panthers exceeded every reasonable expectation last year.

Their defense and Newton gives them a solid base to build upon, but it will only get harder from here.

They’re built to beat the best teams in the conference, and might have played the Seahawks tougher than anyone in Week One (before anybody realized they were any good).

If they find two dependable tackles and can get something — anything — from their receiving corps, they have a chance to pull off the first back-to-back winning seasons in franchise history.

But it’s hard to consider either of those feats a given, which makes this a team which could still play well, but win far fewer games.

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Week 16 skill-position injury report — Thursday

A.J. Green, Ike Taylor AP

The following skill-position players were on Thursday’s injury report. Key fantasy starters are bolded. All information was furnished by the NFL:

DID NOT PARTICIPATE

49ers RB Carlos Hyde (ankle).

49ers WR Stevie Johnson (ankle).

Bears PK Robbie Gould (right quadricep).

Bears WR Alshon Jeffery (not injury related).

Bengals WR A.J. Green (toe).

Bengals WR James Wright (knee).

Broncos RB Juwan Thompson (hip, knee).

Browns WR Andrew Hawkins (illness).

Chargers RB Ryan Mathews (ankle).

Chargers WR Keenan Allen (ankle/shoulder).

Chiefs WR Dwayne Bowe (illness).

Colts WR T.Y. Hilton (hamstring).

Dolphins RB Daniel Thomas (knee).

Eagles QB Nick Foles (collarbone).

Falcons WR Julio Jones (hip).

Giants RB Rashad Jennings (ankle).

Raiders TE Brian Leonhardt (concussion).

Raiders WR Denarius Moore (knee, ankle).

Raiders WR Vincent Brown (groin).

Ravens TE Owen Daniels (not injury related),.

Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch (back).

Seahawks TE Tony Moeaki (shoulder).

Seahawks WR Paul Richardson (hamstring).

Steelers TE Matt Spaeth (elbow).

Steelers WR Markus Wheaton (illness).

Texans QB Tom Savage (knee).

Texans TE Garrett Graham (ankle).

Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins (ankle).

LIMITED

49ers RB Frank Gore (concussion).

49ers WR Michael Crabtree (knee).

Bills K Dan Carpenter (right groin).

Bills TE Chris Gragg (knee).

Bills WR Marcus Thigpen (foot).

Broncos QB Peyton Manning (thigh).

Broncos RB Ronnie Hillman (foot).

Broncos TE Jacob Tamme (ribs).

Browns TE Gary Barnidge (rib).

Browns WR Marlon Moore (knee).

Buccaneers WR Solomon Patton (foot).

Cardinals QB Drew Stanton (knee).

Cardinals RB Kerwynn Williams (knee).

Cardinals WR Jaron Brown (toe).

Chargers TE Ladarius Green (concussion/ankle).

Chiefs TE Anthony Fasano (knee).

Cowboys RB DeMarco Murray (hand).

Dolphins TE Charles Clay (hamstring).

Falcons WR Harry Douglas (foot).

Falcons WR Roddy White (knee)

Jets WR Percy Harvin (ankle).

Jets WR Saalim Hakim (quadricep).

Packers RB Eddie Lacy (eye).

Panthers RB DeAngelo Williams (hand).

Patriots RB LeGarrette Blount (shoulder).

Patriots RB Shane Vereen (ankle).

Patriots WR Brandon LaFell (shoulder).

Patriots WR Julian Edelman (thigh, concussion).

Texans RB Arian Foster (hip).

Vikings RB Matt Asiata (foot).

Vikings WR Greg Jennings (hamstring).

FULL

Bengals TE Jermaine Gresham (toe).

Bills RB Anthony Dixon (chest).

Broncos RB C.J. Anderson (ankle).

Broncos TE Julius Thomas (ankle).

Broncos WR Cody Latimer (concussion).

Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas (ankle).

Buccaneers RB Bobby Rainey (wrist).

Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald (knee).

Chargers QB Philip Rivers (chest/back).

Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles (knee, ankle).

Colts WR Joshua Cribbs (not injury related).

Cowboys QB Tony Romo (back).

Eagles K Cody Parkey (right groin).

Eagles RB Chris Polk (ankle).

Eagles TE Brent Celek (neck).

Eagles WR Jordan Matthews (knee).

Jaguars QB Cam Newton (back).

Jets K Nick Folk (right hip).

Jets RB Chris Johnson (knee).

Lions WR Calvin Johnson (ankle).

Patriots QB Tom Brady (ankle)

Raiders QB Derek Carr (right thumb).

Ravens RB Bernard Pierce (back).

Ravens WR Jacoby Jones (illness).

Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger (not injury related).

Steelers TE Heath Miller (not injury related).

Texans WR Andre Johnson (concussion).

Washington TE Jordan Reed (not injury related).

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Punts aplenty, Titans-Jaguars is coal in fans’ stockings

bortles AP

NFL Network is giving fans one of the worst prime time games in history with the 2-12 Titans and 2-12 Jaguars squaring off, but something extraordinary happened on the first drive: Charlie Whitehurst looked like a competent quarterback.

The Titans received the opening kickoff and marched downfield for a touchdown, with Whitehurst going 6-for-6 passing, and it looked like a real, honest-to-goodness, legitimate NFL football game. Could the backup quarterback known as Clipboard Jesus give us a Festivus Miracle and give us a good football game?

Nope.

Instead, we’re getting the coal in the stockings we all expected. After that opening drive, we’ve had seven drives ending in seven punts.

Whitehurst has at least looked OK. Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles has looked like the lost rookie he is, and watching the Jaguars it’s hard to believe they were actually favored in this game. It’s hard to believe the Jaguars could be favored over anyone.

Late in the first half, the score remains 7-0, Titans. Stay tuned to see if any more touchdowns are scored. Or don’t.

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Drew Stanton limited in practice for Cardinals

Drew Stanton AP

Cardinals quarterback Drew Stanton was a surprise participant in practice today.

Stanton was listed as limited on the team’s injury report. That’s better than expected; it was assumed he’d be out of practice today.

It still seems unlikely that Stanton will be able to play after suffering a knee sprain a week ago. Reports have indicated that Stanton will miss multiple weeks. It would be a major upset if he’s able to play on Sunday against the Seahawks.

But even if Arizona is stuck with Ryan Lindley on Sunday against Seattle, the fact that Stanton is on the practice field at all today is a good sign that he could be back in time for the playoffs.

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Report of Michigan offer to Harbaugh is disputed

Jim+Harbaugh+cpUYrtG9pt2m Getty Images

Just as reports that Michigan offered 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh $8 million per year had lingered long enough to be accepted as gospel truth, another report has emerged disputing those reports.

Per Bruce Feldman of FOX Sports, the reports of an offer worth $8 million annually to Harbaugh are not accurate.

It’s unclear specifically how the reports aren’t accurate.  Is the $8 million figure too high?  Was the offer a wink-nod “we’ll make this offer if you’ll accept it” kind of offer?  Has Michigan simply not made the offer but intends to?  Or is Michigan simply not interested?

The fairly obvious assumption emerging from the dueling reports is that Harbaugh’s camp leaked the initial information to NFL reporters, and that Michigan has leaked contradictory information to a college football reporter.

Gamesmanship and misinformation are predictable in this context.  Harbaugh, who spurned Michigan and $5.2 million per year in 2011 for the 49ers and $5 million per year, wants to maximize his earnings at his next NFL stop, and to minimize the amount his new team must give the 49ers in trade.  If Harbaugh’s agent can create the impression (true or not) that Michigan is ready to pay $8 million per year at a time when plenty of wheels are surely moving behind the scenes on his next NFL opportunity, Harbaugh wins.

Michigan likewise benefits from the free publicity that news of the offer generates.  But Michigan also has a strong interest in ensuring that the eventual target to replace Brady Hoke doesn’t think Michigan is ready to blow the lid off the market.

So, basically, Michigan has offered Harbaugh $8 million per year.  Unless it hasn’t.  The details won’t matter if it helps Harbaugh get the kind of money from the Raiders that he couldn’t get from the 49ers.

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Blake Bortles gets the start for the Jaguars

Jacksonville Jaguars v Indianapolis Colts Getty Images

Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles is nursing a foot injury, but he’s healthy enough to start tonight against the Titans.

The Jaguars have confirmed that Bortles is active and good to go. He’ll start once again, giving many fans who rarely watch the Jaguars when there are better teams on TV on Sundays their first chance to see the rookie quarterback.

The Jaguars’ inactives are WR Tommy Streeter, CB Teddy Williams, CB Jeremy Harris, S Matt Daniels, OL Tyler Shatley, DE Andre Branch and DT Roy Miller.

The Titans’ inactives are QB Zach Mettenberger, DB Jemea Thomas, LB Zaviar Gooden, OLB Dontay Moch, T Terren Jones, T Taylor Lewan and DL Mike Martin.

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Tedford heads to the B.C. Lions

Tedford AP

Health issues kept Jeff Tedford from serving as Tampa Bay’s offensive coordinator in 2014.  Now released from his contract, Tedford has found a new job, north of the border.

Per a league source, Tedford has accepted an offer to become the new head coach of the B.C. Lions of the CFL.

Tedford, who was out of football in 2013 after being fired by Cal, ultimately took a leave of absence after heart problems emerged prior to the start of the regular season.  He never returned, and his absence became a vastly underrated detriment for a team with a defensive-minded head coach (Lovie Smith) and a smattering of offensive position coaches without the experience needed to coordinate the offense in Tedford’s absence.

Tedford’s decision to return to coach suggests he could have returned to work for the Bucs in 2015.  Which invites speculation as to whether he wanted to leave Tampa, whether Tampa wanted him to go, or a little bit of both.

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Jim Harbaugh won’t answer Michigan question

Harbaugh AP

On Wednesday, multiple reports indicated that Michigan has offered the vacant head coaching job to 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh.  Asked about the situation on Thursday, Harbaugh opted not to dust off a Nick Saban-style answer.

Instead, Harbaugh refused to address the situation.

“As you know, I only talk about the job that I have,” Harbaugh said, via Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News.  “We’ve been together a long time.  Always been my policy.”

It’s unclear whether anyone asked Harbaugh on Thursday whether he’ll have in 10 days the job he currently has.  Then again, some questions don’t need to be asked.  It’s become a given that Harbaugh won’t return to the 49ers in 2015, and no one from the team’s camp or the coach’s camp has even attempted to float the idea that he’ll be back.

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DeMarco Murray says decision on playing this week will be up to him

cd0ymzcznguwzdbhnduynddiytjhm2yyzthlmtjjotqwyyznptq3mtgzntqxntjmngu0ywu1njqxzde1ntiwndqwyzez AP

Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray moved up from unofficial participant in practice to limited participant in practice on Thursday and said that his surgically repaired left hand is feeling good.

That keeps hope that Murray, who is wearing a plastic protective shell over the broken bone in his hand, can play on Sunday against the Colts very much alive.

“I’m a very competitive person and I want to help this team out as much I can, so whatever that portrays me doing Sunday, then we’ll see,” Murray said, via ESPNDallas.com. “But I’ve had two good days, and we’ll see how it goes.”

Murray said that the ultimate decision about playing will be up to him, something that owner Jerry Jones confirmed when he said that doctors told him that Murray “has to tell us if he feels like playing or not” and that it is about how Murray feels rather than strategy. Barring a change in Murray’s condition in the next 24 hours, it sounds like he’s headed for a questionable tag on Friday and the words coming out of Cowboys camp have the needle pointed in the direction of playing.

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Josh Thomas says Jets didn’t coach him

Thomas Getty Images

Apparently, the Jets didn’t tell cornerback Josh Thomas, “Don’t let your playbook be stolen.”  They apparently didn’t tell him other things, too.

Claimed Wednesday on waivers by the Lions after being cut by the Jets on Tuesday, Thomas met with the media and talked about the things he didn’t learn about in New York.

“I feel like I wasn’t given the attention necessary as far as being engaged from the coach-to-player standpoint and knowing the things I need to work on,” Thomas said, via Michael Rothstein of ESPN.com.  “It became where I was there as a player and wanting and desiring some feedback that wasn’t given.  So sometimes I may have been standing there with a [deer-in-headlight] look in my eyes trying to figure out what I needed to do.

“So at the same time, just from the past experiences, every organization operates differently — so it could be the way that the Jets operate.  I just want to be great.  I want to get better every day.  I look forward to enhancing something about my game every day, and [the Jets] were just more independent there.”

So what was his reaction to the first day in Detroit?

“It was refreshing, like, ‘Thanks for coaching me,'” Thomas said.

If the Lions make it to the playoffs, the message to the Jets could be, “Thanks for cutting me.”

Which could give other Jets players an idea.  An idea that could lead to a lot more playbooks being lost.

 

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Norv Turner: It’s pretty incredible to me what Teddy Bridgewater has done this season

Teddy Bridgewater AP

The Vikings won’t make the playoffs in 2014, but offensive coordinator Norv Turner feels pretty sure that they’ve found themselves a quarterback.

Turner opened up his press conference on Thursday with a long statement about how impressed he’s been by the play of rookie Teddy Bridgewater this season that seemed to be a defense against criticism of Bridgewater’s two interceptions against the Lions last Sunday.

Turner said he’s seen many quarterbacks struggle when faced with a shifting supporting cast — eight offensive linemen, three different running backs, three different tight ends and a wide receiver who was signed off the Browns practice squad, for example — and that he hasn’t seen those struggles from Bridgewater, who Turner says has been asked to handle more than any other young quarterback he’s worked with.

“It’s pretty incredible to me what he’s done, how he’s handled it, the things he’s gotten done and what he’s really done is made everyone around him better and that’s a quality that you’re looking for … the thing that excites me is he can make any throw you need to make — he does it with people around him, he does it with people hitting him, he does it when he has to slide in the pocket. He knows how to play football and that’s the starting point of the quarterback position. He’s got the intangibles you need and he’s going to continue to get better and better,” Turner said, via Matt Vensel of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

There’s obviously room for growth from Bridgewater, but the Vikings probably feel pretty good about that taking place if his performance this season is his floor. And they almost certainly feel better about the quarterback position than they did at this point last year, which is one positive to take away from the season.

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A.J. Green out sick on Thursday

Cincinnati Bengals v Cleveland Browns Getty Images

The Bengals were without their best wide receiver in practice on Thursday.

Concern about A.J. Green missing Monday’s game against the Broncos isn’t high, however.

Green missed Thursday’s session with an illness that Geoff Hobson of the team’s website reports isn’t believed to be serious. Green is expected back at work on Friday, leaving him ample time to prepare for Denver’s visit for a game that the Bengals need to assure themselves of top position in the AFC North heading into the final week of the regular season.

Linebacker Emmanuel Lamur also missed practice with a hamstring injury, but “looked ready to rehab” according to Hobson. Assuming Lamur plays, he’ll likely play a part in the team’s plan for slowing both running back C.J. Anderson and tight end Julius Thomas come Monday night.

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McDonald case reconfirms NFL teams do whatever they want to do

Indianapolis Colts v San Francisco 49ers Getty Images

So why did the 49ers stand steadfastly behind defensive lineman Ray McDonald when he was arrested but never charged with domestic violence but summarily dump him after a search warrant was served in connection with a rape investigation?

Short answer:  NFL teams do whatever they want.

That’s the only way to reconcile the team’s loud adherence to due process in one case, and it’s lightning-fast discipline in another case.

What’s that, you say?  McDonald created multiple distractions?  So did Aldon Smith.  And he’s still employed.

He’s still employed because he’s a much better player.  If McDonald had played better this year, or if the 49ers still had a shot at getting to the postseason, McDonald would still be employed, too.

Excuses are made for the players deemed valuable to the team.  Examples are made of the scrubs.  That’s the way it will remain, even under the new personal conduct policy.

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George Iloka: We can’t do what we did last week and apply it to Peyton Manning

cd0ymzcznguwzdbhnduynddiytjhm2yyzthlmtjjotqwyyznptbhmzgym2mznzg2yjuznzvkmthmnwy4yti4m2jkotu4 AP

Some people might worry about overconfidence on a defense that’s coming off a shutout, but it doesn’t look like it will be a problem for the Bengals this weekend.

Safety George Iloka was asked Thursday what the team could carry over from their 30-0 win against the Browns and scoffed at the premise of the question. Iloka said it would be “foolish” of the team to think they could “take the things we did” to shut down Johnny Manziel and apply them to stopping the Broncos.

“It’s Peyton Manning and it’s Johnny Manziel,” Iloka said, via ESPN.com. “He’ll be a good quarterback one of these days, but let’s not put him in the same type of category right now. The only thing we can take from last week is how fired up we came, how intense we were and try and come out the gate the same way.”

There’s not much to add to Iloka’s point about the two quarterbacks other than to say that he’s absolutely correct. Monday night will be miles away from Week 15 in Cleveland for the defense literally and figuratively.

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Cutler says he was “shocked” and “disappointed” to lose job

Chicago Bears v New England Patriots Getty Images

Bears quarterback Jay Cutler said he was “shocked at first, then disappointed” to lose his job, but he didn’t lose his sense of humor.

The local media descended to today’s press conference about his benching, after most of them missed his post-game remarks Monday.

“I’m glad you guys could make it,” Cutler said as he took the podium. “I missed you after the game.”

Jokes aside, Cutler made it clear he wasn’t expecting being benched for Jimmy Clausen, but said he thought he did have a future in Chicago.

Asked directly if he could play for coach Marc Trestman again next year, Cutler replied: “Yes, . . . I think I could. I definitely could.”

A moment later, he said “I think we’d have to figure some things out in the offseason.”

He went on to call Trestman “a heck of a quarterback coach.”

But he also acknowledged that the contract he received last season made that complicated.

“There’s a lot of money in my contract,” he said. “And that comes with a lot of expectations.”

None of which he’s met this year, which is why he’s holding court in an unusual press conference. He admitted he might not have handled things well yesterday upon hearing the news, but he’s handling this press conference better than many in his career.

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Seahawks extend K.J. Wright

Seattle Seahawks v Philadelphia Eagles Getty Images

The Seahawks have locked up a young starter on their stellar defense for the next four years.

K.J. Wright, the 25-year-old linebacker who has started all 14 games this season, has signed a four-year extension.

“In the offseason, we identified K.J. as one of our core players moving forward and aimed to keep him as a part of the Seahawks family for a long time,” G.M. John Schneider said in a statement. “The timing of this signing gives us the ability to keep as many of our core players together as we possibly can. Since Day One, K.J. has been a true professional in his daily approach and we are excited for K.J., his family and the 12s to keep him in the organization.”

The Seahawks drafted Wright with the 99th overall pick in 2011 and he became a starter as a rookie. He’s a big part of the Seahawks’ defensive success and would have been a big target of other teams in free agency next year, but now he’s in Seattle for the long haul.

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