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Looking ahead at future Hall of Fame classes

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The seven members of the 2014 class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame have received their busts in Canton, Ohio, and now that enshrinement weekend is behind us, let’s look ahead at the players, coaches and contributors who could comprise the next five Hall of Fame classes.

2015

Junior Seau will be eligible for the first time next year, and he’s the one man who looks like a lock for the class of 2015. Seau’s enshrinement will bring up stories about his suicide and questions about whether brain damage on the football field could have led to his depression, but his enshrinement should also be a celebration of one of the greatest linebackers ever to play the game.

Paul Tagliabue, the former commissioner, may be the biggest beneficiary of the Hall of Fame’s new policy of voting on contributors separately from players and coaches. In past Hall of Fame votes, Tagliabue has lost out, but now that he’s no longer competing with players and coaches, there’s a good chance that he’ll be enshrined next year.

Steve Sabol would also be a good choice in 2015, when there will be two Hall of Fame finalists from the separate contributors category. Sabol’s father Ed is already in the Hall of Fame, but both Sabols deserve busts in Canton for building NFL Films.

Kurt Warner is, after Seau, the player with the best chance of being enshrined in his first year of eligibility next year. Some may say Warner’s greatness was too short-lived to merit Hall of Fame induction, but a player with two regular-season MVP awards and a Super Bowl MVP award is probably going to end up in Canton.

Orlando Pace protected Warner’s blind side in St. Louis and was one of the best offensive tackles in the NFL for a decade, and he’ll also be eligible for the first time next year.

Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce were the top two receivers on the Greatest Show on Turf, and they both retired after the 2009 season, making them eligible in 2015. (You can be forgiven if you’ve forgotten that Holt was in Jacksonville and Bruce was in San Francisco in 2009.) It would really be something if they were both inducted along with Warner and Pace. That, however, is awfully unlikely. Wide receivers have had a hard time getting into Canton in recent years, and Holt and Bruce may end up competing against each other and therefore hurting each other’s chances in much the same way that Steelers greats John Stallworth and Lynn Swann did for many years.

Jerry Kramer, the great Packers offensive lineman, would be a strong choice as a senior candidate. Next year will be a harder year for seniors to get in, as only one senior finalist will be nominated. But Kramer may be the most deserving senior candidate eligible.

2016

Brett Favre is a sure thing to be inducted in 2016, and the Packers have already begun the process of turning the year before his induction into a long ceremony honoring Favre, who will have his number retired in 2015.

Terrell Owens also becomes eligible in 2016, but he’s a long shot. Owens is second only to Jerry Rice on the all-time receiving yards list and third behind Rice and Randy Moss in receiving touchdowns, but Owens acted like such a jerk, so often, that he’s remembered as much for becoming a disruptive force in the locker room as he is for being a dominant force on the field.

Eddie DeBartolo Jr., the former 49ers owner, may benefit from the new contributors category and be enshrined soon. The question is whether Hall of Fame voters will reward DeBartolo for his role in building the great 49ers teams of the 1980s and 1990s, and overlook the circumstances that led DeBartolo to be forced out of the NFL.

Jerome Bettis may finally get his bust in Canton in 2016, as a relatively weak crop of first-year eligible players will make room for those who have previously been passed over.

Will Shields, the great guard for the Chiefs, would also seem likely to benefit from a lack of first-year eligible players, although there have been so many great offensive linemen enshrined in Canton in recent years that it’s hard for any one to gain recognition over all the others.

Marvin Harrison was voted down this year, but he had so many great seasons as a receiver for the Colts that it seems like just a matter of time before he gets in, and 2016 may be the year.

Randy Gradishar and Ken Stabler are a couple of good senior candidates who may be enshrined in 2016, when two seniors will be eligible. (Only one senior is eligible in 2015, 2017 and 2019.)

2017

LaDainian Tomlinson becomes eligible for the first time in 2017, and with 13,684 career rushing yards, Tomlinson looks like a good bet to make it. Only four players have more yards than Tomlinson (Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders and Curtis Martin) and all four are already in the Hall.

Jason Taylor becomes eligible in 2017 as well, and he has a good case, although he may be joining a crowded field of pass rushers, as we’ll detail momentarily.

Kevin Greene was voted down as a Hall of Fame finalist last year, but with 160 sacks in his career, he seems sure to get in eventually: The only players with more career sacks than Greene were Bruce Smith and Reggie White, two of the greatest players in NFL history. The 2017 class may be the one that finally makes room for Greene.

Charles Haley also might finally get his Hall call in 2017. He’s been voted down five times already, but his contributions to Super Bowl winners in both San Francisco and Dallas should be enough to earn him a bust at some point.

Hines Ward was a great wide receiver and a Super Bowl MVP winner, and he’ll be eligible for the first time in 2017. But Ward’s career numbers (1,000 catches for 12,083 yards and 85 touchdowns) are dwarfed by those of some other recent receivers, and Ward may suffer by comparison.

Brian Dawkins was a nine-time Pro Bowl safety who also becomes eligible in 2017, but he seems unlikely to be selected in his first year of eligibility. Dawkins was a beloved player both on and off the field, and at some point the voters may put him in Canton, but that point probably won’t be until he’s on the ballot for at least a few years.

George Young, the former Giants general manager, is just the kind of person that the new “contributors” category is designed to recognize, and the 2017 class may be the year that the late Young gets his due.

Don Coryell would appear to be a likely choice as a senior candidate some day, and 2017 may be when that day comes. Coryell never won a championship as a coach, but he was such an innovator of the passing game that he’s a significant figure in the history of football.

2018

Ray Lewis will be an easy choice as one of the greatest defensive players in NFL history. There’s no room for debate on that.

Randy Moss may leave some room for debate, as his numbers are comparable to those of Terrell Owens, who looks like a long shot. But Moss at his best was such a game-changer that he just feels like exactly the kind of player who belongs in Canton.

Brian Urlacher, who like Lewis and Moss becomes eligible in 2018, has a very good case for enshrinement as well. Although he’ll suffer in comparison to Lewis, there will probably be enough support for Urlacher to get him enshrined in his first year of eligibility.

Steve Hutchinson was a great guard and also becomes eligible in 2018, but he won’t get in on his first year of eligibility. Hutchinson may be a finalist many times, but getting the necessary 80 percent of the vote will be tough.

Tim Brown is a longtime finalist who feels like he accomplished enough in the NFL (usually while serving as the only decent threat in his teams’ passing games) that he should be recognized eventually. The 2018 class may be the year.

Art Modell has been voted down several times, and the opposition to his candidacy is strong from some who say that taking the Browns out of Cleveland was an unforgivable sin. But the new contributors category gives Modell a much better chance, and 2018 could be his year.

Bob Kuechenberg and Cliff Harris are among the best senior candidates who haven’t been selected yet.

2019

Tony Gonzalez becomes eligible for the first time in 2019, and he’s just about a sure thing as one of the greatest tight ends ever to play the game.

Ed Reed also becomes eligible for the first time in 2019, and he also looks like a sure thing as one of the greatest safeties ever to play the game.

Tony Dungy was voted down in his first year of eligibility last year and may be voted down a few more times, but he’s likely to get in eventually, and 2019 could be the year.

Morten Andersen was also voted down this year in his first year as a Hall of Fame finalist, but he also has a good case to make it eventually. Andersen, the NFL’s all-time leader in points scored, would join Jan Stenerud and Ray Guy as the only kicking specialists in the Hall of Fame.

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Michael Vick is sick, and not just of watching Jets

Michael Vick AP

Somebody ate too much turkey yesterday.

Or is at least sick of being the patsy for one.

OK, maybe it’s neither, but the timing is coincidental.

Jets quarterback Michael Vick isn’t practicing today because of an illness, via Darryl Slater of NJ.com.

Of course, you wonder if he’d have been able to plow through whatever malady it is if he were still starting, rather than being replaced by Geno Smith as the Jets play out the string.

They’re such a disaster now it doesn’t matter, but if he can’t go Monday against the Dolphins, they’d have to turn to Matt Simms to back up.

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Glover Quin scoffs at Bears trying to pad stats late in loss

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It was bad enough for the Lions to embarrass the Bears on Thanksgiving.

Then they went and laughed at their division rivals for trying to pad their stats.

Lions safety Glover Quin trolled the Bears for throwing late in the game when things were well in hand, accusing them of trying to make their fantasy stats better.

“I was a little frustrated when we came back out there because I knew Jay Cutler had like 190 passing yards,” Quin said, via  Carlos Monarrez of the Detroit Free Press. “They only had like 206 [yards on offense].

“I was like, ‘Man, we’re going to go back out here and they’re going to dink and dunk and get 50, 60 yards and make it look like he had a good day.’ And then he was trying to score at the end. I’m glad he threw a pick.”

Granted, the Bears weren’t going to come back and win, trailing by 17 with 1:55 left from their own 15.  But the best way to prove their point was by James Ihedigbo getting the interception in the end zone.
That doesn’t mean Quin didn’t enjoy sticking it to them, however.
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Vontaze Burfict not taking part in Friday practice

Vontaze Burfict AP

One of the Bengals’ defensive standouts continues to be on the mend with an injury that’s ailed him for several weeks.

Outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict (knee) wasn’t participating in Friday’s practice, Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com reported.

The 24-year-old Burfict has sat out the last four games for Cincinnati, which leads the AFC North at 7-3-1. He has not practiced since arthroscopic knee surgery in late October, and a return to workouts would seem likely for him to rejoin the Bengals’ starting lineup.

According to ESPN.com’s Coley Harvey, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis previously indicated Burfict might take part in practice this week.

With Burfict hurting, Vincent Rey has stepped in at weak-side linebacker for Burfict, who made the Pro Bowl a season ago.

The Bengals play at Tampa Bay (2-9) on Sunday.

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Seahawks rediscover what took them to the top in 2013

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For every team that wins a Super Bowl, it’s difficult to go back to the valley of 0-0 and dig out again — especially when the reward is to do what the team just did.

For the Seahawks, that didn’t appear it would be a problem given the manner in which they stomped the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII and the ease with which they trounced the Packers to open the season.  But adversity arrived in various ways, from injuries on defense to injuries on the offensive line to the abrupt trade of Percy Harvin to whatever the deal is between the organization and Marshawn Lynch to rumors of internal resentment of quarterback Russell Wilson.

Now, with a pair of 19-3 wins over the Cardinals and 49ers only four days apart, the champs are back, baby.

“[T]hese guys have really joined together and recaptured really what it was that we played with last year,” coach Pete Carroll said after Thursday night’s win at Santa Clara.  “It took us some time to figure out but we have. . . .  There’s no question in the last two weeks that we have elevated our game.  It’s come back from Kam [Chancellor] and Earl [Thomas] and [Richard Sherman] and all those guys. . . .  They’ve touched what it is, and the special attitude with intensity, the toughness that it takes and really it comes back to what they’re doing.”

Offensively, the Seahawks continue to do just enough, even with Harvin and Golden Tate gone, and tight end Zach Miller on injured reserve.  Lynch continues to move the chains, tight end Luke Willson made multiple key catches last night, backup tailback Robert Turbin (pictured) chipped in with the only touchdown of the night on a nifty catch-and-run to the pylon, and Wilson continues to show a rare ability to accelerate out of trouble, to make good decisions under duress, and to launch a periodic missile with his MLB-quality arm.

So, yes, the Seahawks are moving in the right direction.  And they’re playing so well that the presumed Super Bowl preview at Lambeau Field this weekend could be derailed by a team that’s peaking just in time for a title run that could be a bit more complex than last year’s pair of home-field wins, but that ultimately could have the same outcome.

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Nick Foles still not ready to take a hit, but healing well

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It’s hardly a surprise that as Mark Sanchez again looked entirely comfortable under center for the Eagles, the guy he replaced starts feeling better.

According to Les Bowen of the Philadelphia Daily News, a source close to Foles said he was “healing as expected” from his broken collarbone.

Foles isn’t ready to take a hit yet, but the results of a recent CT scan showed he can start ramping up his strengthening work.

The timetable for his return remains uncertain, but if Sanchez continues to play capably, as he has most of the time he’s been starting, there will be less incentive to push Foles before he’s completely healed.

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Trent Williams “definitely optimistic” about getting back this week

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While the quarterback position has made it impossible to get a read on the offense as a whole lately, they’re getting another part back this week which should help.

Left tackle Trent Williams said he was “definitely optimistic,” he’ll be ready to go when his team travels to Indianapolis Sunday.

“I’m not expecting it to be 100 percent, but as long as I can be effective, [I’ll play],” Williams said, via Zac Boyer of the Washington Times.

Williams missed last week’s loss to the 49ers with a sprained MCL, suffered the week before against the Buccaneers. But he got through a full practice Thursday and seemed optimistic about his prospects.

Having him back on the field should help Colt McCoy, as rookie Morgan Moses looked overmatched there against the 49ers.

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Tony Romo: I promise I’ll be better next week

Tony Romo AP

The Cowboys fell down early to the Eagles on Thursday afternoon and never really climbed back into a game that wound up as a 33-10 loss that knocked them out of first place in the NFC East.

As owner Jerry Jones pointed out after the game, the Eagles controlled the line of scrimmage as their offensive and defensive lines won battles and set the tone for the day. That left quarterback Tony Romo under pressure and he responded with a pair of interceptions in perhaps his poorest performance of the season.

Romo said that it was difficult making a quick turnaround from Sunday night, but that there were “no excuses” for the way that he or his teammates played against the Eagles.

“We should have been better,” Romo said, via the Dallas Morning News. “I should have been better. And I am going to play much better next week, I can promise you that.”

After watching Matthew Stafford and the Lions get right offensively against the Bears on Thursday, that’s a promise Romo would seem to have a good chance of keeping. The Cowboys will still need to figure out a better approach against the Eagles, though, because Week 15 is fast approaching.

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Dez Bryant thinks Eagles were “kinda cheap” on Thursday

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Two of the three Thanksgiving games featured division rivals who’ll play twice in the next three weeks.  In both cases, the home team lost — and will go on the road for a rematch on December 14.

Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant is looking forward to the return date with the Eagles.

“They were being kinda cheap, that’s another story,” Bryant said after the game, via CBS Philly.  “It is what it is, I’ll get it cleaned up and I’ll be fine.”

Bryant may have been referring to multiple instances of interference.  Or possibly to the busted lip he had after the game.  Either way, he sounds mad.

“I’m really not mad at all,” Bryant said.  “They beat us and I’m going to accept that. . . .  [I’m] not looking past Chicago, but I cannot wait to go up there and play [Philadelphia] again, cannot wait.”

It’s very important to not look past the Bears.  If in six days the Cowboys lose at Soldier Field — where they were blown out last December — the regression to 8-8 will be in full gear.  Lose to the Bears and then in Philly, the Cowboys will need to beat the Colts or Washington to avoid a fourth straight .500 finish.

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Another week, another injury concern on the Panthers offensive line

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The Panthers return from their bye week to face the Vikings on Sunday, but their week off hasn’t done anything to stop the season-long issues with injury on their offensive line.

Amini Silatolu was a full participant in practice on Wednesday before missing practice on Thursday with a knee problem. Jonathan Jones of the Charlotte Observer reports he’s out on Friday as well.

Silatolu, who tore his ACL last year and missed the team’s loss to Atlanta before the bye because of swelling and soreness in his knee, has played guard in Carolina, but was expected to make the move to right tackle this week now that the Panthers have lost Nate Chandler for the season.

Chris Scott and Mike Remmers are other options at right tackle for the Panthers in the event that Silatolu misses another game. Center Ryan Kalil has been the only member of the offensive line to start every game this season, which is one of the leading reasons why this season hasn’t gone according to plan in Carolina.

While things have gone off course on the way to a 3-7-1 record, the Panthers are very much alive in the NFC South as they embark on the final five games of their schedule. There’s not much reason to believe the offensive line is going to suddenly become a strength, but the Panthers will get a few more chances to successfully work around it before hope of a playoff berth is officially extinguished.

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Patriots release Don Jones

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The Patriots found a spot on the roster for safety Don Jones against the Lions last week after making him a healthy scratch in Week 11, but Jones didn’t have the same luck this week.

The team announced that they have released Jones, who has played in nine of their first 11 games this season. Jones, who gave up his No. 29 to LeGarrette Blount when the running back returned to New England, saw most of his time on special teams and recorded six tackles.

Jones was a seventh-round pick of the Dolphins in 2013 and played in all 16 games with the team as a rookie. He was with the team through the end of the preseason, although he did serve a brief suspension and underwent sensitivity training mandated by Miami after Jones made some Twitter remarks concerning Michael Sam during this year’s draft.

The Patriots didn’t immediately fill the roster spot and could bring Jones back to the practice squad if they are so inclined.

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Packers defenders readying for chess match with Patriots

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The Packers and Patriots will square off at Lambeau Field on Sunday and the Packers Defense is preparing for as tough a test as they’ve faced this season.

With tight end Rob Gronkowski back to full speed, the Patriots Offense has taken flight during their seven-game winning streak. They are averaging more than 39 points per game and forcing defenses to pick their poison as they take advantage of favorable matchups from week to week.

The Packers know that they will need to pressure Tom Brady and bring Gronkowski down when he does make a catch, but, ultimately, cornerback Tramon Williams says that Green Bay’s chances will come down to their ability to adapt to whatever area the Patriots try to attack.

“That’s been their MO,” Williams said, via the team’s website. “They find different ways to attack different teams. You never know what it’s going to be from week to week. That’s the chess match, and that’s what the great teams do. They play chess. It isn’t a checkers game. Hopefully we can go out and play chess a little bit, too.”

Recognizing what it takes to slow down the Patriots is a far different thing than actually doing it once the ball is snapped, but the Packers are on the right track when it comes to knowing that they’ll need to be adaptable. It’s something that has been a hallmark of the New England offense this season and any Packers win will require their defense to have the same approach.

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Griffin’s departure from starting lineup could be temporary

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When the decision to start quarterback Colt McCoy was coupled with a suggestion that Robert Griffin III remained part of Washington’s long-term plans, plenty scoffed.  How, after all, can the team bench Griffin for the second time in less than a year and then embrace him all over again?

Apparently, they can.  Quite possibly, they will.

Griffin’s absence from the starting lineup could be as short as one week, and it could last until the start of next season.  Either way, the plan is to try to get Griffin back to being the player he was in 2012, when he took the league by storm (and kept defenses off balance) with a perfect mixture of accurate passing and explosive running ability.

The organization understands that Griffin has encountered a significant amount of adversity, most of which was beyond his control.  Weeks before he arrived, the NFL robbed the team of $36 million in cap space for treating the uncapped year of 2010 as, you know, uncapped.  And the draft picks given up to get Griffin made it harder to put high-level young talent around him.

Throw in the torn ACL, last year’s Shanahan-driven dysfunction, and a dislocated ankle that derailed his ability to learn coach Jay Gruden’s offense, and Griffin’s failure to develop into one of the best quarterbacks in the game becomes far more understandable.

It doesn’t mean Griffin is destined to return to what he was in 2012.  But the organization isn’t ready to give up on him.

In that regard, the organization includes coach Jay Gruden.  While his words suggest that Gruden is waging a battle to bench Griffin for good, the team believes Gruden wants Griffin to get better — and that Gruden is opting for candor instead of coddling as he tries to coax the most out of Griffin over the long haul.

By the start of the 2015 season, Washington’s roster could look a lot different.  Considerable dollars will be spent in free agency.  The first-round draft pick won’t belong to the Rams.  And some of the players who have kept the team from being successful will be gone.

Despite the current feeding frenzy fueled by common sense and conventional wisdom that Griffin will be among the former members of the team by next season, the plan really is to keep him around.  Surprisingly, that doesn’t seem to be a ploy to salvage his trade value.

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Seahawks still have Kaepernick’s number

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Colin Kaepernick struggled against the Seahawks on Thursday night. As usual.

In Seattle’s 19-3 Thanksgiving night win at San Francisco, Richard Sherman picked off Kaepernick twice and the 49ers’ offense never got into the end zone. In fact, the 49ers only got into the red zone once, and on their one and only red-zone play, Kaepernick was sacked and the 49ers were pushed back out of the red zone.

That kind of game has become commonplace for Kaepernick against Seattle. In Kaepernick’s five starts against the Seahawks (counting the playoffs) he has completed 77 of 146 passes for 820 yards, with three touchdowns and nine interceptions. The 49ers have lost four of those five games.

That’s a far cry from Kaepernick’s numbers in the rest of his career: When not facing Seattle, Kaepernick has completed 629 of 1,031 passes for 8,336 yards, with 50 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Kaepernick has never thrown more than one touchdown pass in a game against the Seahawks but has thrown more than one touchdown 14 different times against other teams. On the other hand, Kaepernick has only thrown more than one interception in a game four times. Three of those four were against Seattle.

The 49ers will need Kaepernick to figure out Seattle’s defense in a hurry. The teams meet again in Seattle on December 14, in a game that looks like a must-win for the 49ers.

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Fans flood former Bills linebacker Darryl Talley with contributions

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On Thanksgiving, Tim Graham of the Buffalo News shared a troubling glimpse into the current struggles of former NFL linebacker Darryl Talley, a member of the Bills’ Ring of Honor and a key piece of the team that went to four straight Super Bowls.  While it appears the Bills organization may have turned its back on Talley, Bills fans definitely haven’t.

An effort launched Thursday to raise money for Talley, a College Football Hall of Famer who starred at West Virginia before playing for the Bills, already has generated more than $27,000.

On one hand, the NFL and its teams need to do more to take care of the men who struggle with medical and financial issues after giving so many years to the sport of football.  On the other hand, fans could be the best way to fill the void.

It’s not surprising that fans have genuine gratitude; any success a team enjoys flows from the efforts of its players.  While the NFL surely believes it’s doing enough to take care of the men who made pro football into a billion-dollar behemoth, someone needs to do more for Talley.  Now, someone is.

Kudos to those who have contributed.  For Bills fans, Mountaineer fans, and general fans of the sport who haven’t given but want to, just click the link.

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Jadeveon Clowney calls chances of playing this week “slim”

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Texans linebacker Jadeveon Clowney’s rookie year has been severely compromised by the torn meniscus in his knee that he suffered in the first week of the regular season and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight to his difficulties.

Clowney was able to play in last weekend’s loss to the Bengals, but hasn’t practiced this week because of swelling and doesn’t think things will clear up in time for him to face the Titans on Sunday. He said Thursday that his chances of playing for the fifth time this season are “slim.”

“My knee swelled up on me a little bit, and I’m trying to get it back to the way it was before,” Clowney said, via the Houston Chronicle. “It’s bothering me a lot right now. I’m in a lot of pain. It’s been bothering me off and on the whole season. It’s the kind of thing if I can go, I’ll go. If I can’t, I won’t. I told them [trainers, doctors and coaches] how I feel, and it’s up to them.”

Clowney has solicited the advice of Brian Cushing about dealing with knee problems and Cushing showed him some stretches that loosened the knee up enough for him to play last weekend. It seems more lasting health is going to take a while, however, and that’s probably going to make the first overall pick’s rookie season a glorified redshirt year.

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