As clock ticks for Cowboys and Ezekiel Elliott, Zeke plans to travel out of the country

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Our popcorn is indeed ready.

The Cowboys report for camp in five days. Running back Ezekiel Elliott may or may not be there. Per a league source, Elliott currently is believed to be making plans for a trip out of the country.

Of course, plans can quickly change. After PFT reported that Elliott is privately saying he intends to hold out absent a new contract, Charles Robinson of Yahoo Sports explained on Monday that it will be an important week between team and player, and that things could go “sideways fast.”

Elliott, instead of going to Oxnard (by way of Dallas) for training camp, could be going somewhere else. Elliott spent an extended period of time in Mexico during his six-week suspension in 2017.

Ultimately, he wants a new deal, as he should. COO Stephen Jones has called Zeke the “straw, if you will, that stirs our drink.” That drink could end up strawless for the start of camp, and possibly beyond, unless the Cowboys move quickly to make the straw one of the highest paid drink-stirrers at his position — if not the highest.

Buccaneers agree to deal with Devin White

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One of the few remaining unsigned rookies from the 2019 NFL draft has now agreed to terms.

Devin White, the fifth overall pick in the draft, has agreed to a deal with the Buccaneers, the team announced today.

White and a few other CAA clients have been slow to sign their rookie contracts, but with camps opening around the NFL, some progress is to be expected.

A linebacker from LSU, White has been penciled in as a Week One starter.

Jets defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa, Giants quarterback Daniel Jones and Panthers linebacker Brian Burns are the remaining unsigned first-round picks.

Will the Chiefs keep Tyreek Hill over the long haul?

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Before off-field issues put the career of Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill in limbo, talks on a long-term deal had begun. Forgotten in the events of the past four months is the fact that those talks may have hit a snag, unrelated to the off-field issues.

Here’s what Jay Glazer wrote in a mailbag for TheAthletic.com, several weeks after he called the shot of the offseason by predicting that Odell Beckham could be traded: “[T]here were questions in Kansas City about whether they could re-sign Tyreek Hill. I heard some rumblings at the start of free agency that his name was being thrown about in trade talks, but at the time thought it had to do with his contract more than anything else.”

It’s possible that the Chiefs had caught wind of what may be in the pipeline from a legal standpoint and explored cutting and running, but it’s hard to imagine coach Andy Reid deliberately sandbagging another team about a situation that, at the time, could have jeopardized Hill’s 2019 season and possibly beyond. So it’s possible that Hill simply wants more than the Chiefs are able or willing to pay, given that they soon will be both breaking the bank and blowing open the vault for Patrick Mahomes.

Contract talks are expected to resume soon regarding Hill. If there’s an impasse, a trade becomes one of the options, either in before the 2019 deadline (less likely) or in early 2020 (more likely, if the Chiefs decide to take that path).

The wildcard in all of this is rookie receiver Mecole Hardman. It was assumed when the Chiefs traded up to get Hardman in round two that he had become the Tyreek Hill short-term contingency plan. What if Hardman was actually the long-term contingency plan?

If Hills seeks (and he arguably deserves) $20 million per year, the Chiefs have Hardman under contract for four years at a total payout of less than $5 million. And coach Andy Reid already has made it clear that he believes Hardman could have the same impact as Hill has had.

He’s got that same explosive power,” Reid said of Hardman in May, regarding comparisons to Hill and DeSean Jackson, whom Reid coached in Philadelphia (and also drafted in round two). “Now, DeSean was probably a little bit further along then Tyreek was at the position — [Hardman] is probably closer to where Tyreek was coming out as a wide receiver. DeSean was a phenomenal route runner coming out. You’ve seen the growth with Tyreek, and I think you’ll see it with this kid. But he catches well, he’s got great, secure, hands, and he can run like a son of a gun.”

If Hardman can deliver on that potential, it gives the Chiefs leverage in their talks with Hill, and choices in the event the Chiefs decide that it makes sense to do with Hill in 2020 the same thing they did with Ford in 2019: Apply the franchise tag, and then trade the player.

That approach would give the Chiefs a chance to evaluate Hardman for a full year in practices and games, with Hill possibly becoming the Alex Smith in this scenario — and Hardman becoming (if he can check all the boxes) the Mahomes.

Marshall Faulk explores becoming an agent

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Running back Marshall Faulk’s NFL career ended with a bust in the Hall of Fame. His TV career as one of the lead analysts at NFL Network ended amid a haze of allegations made in a sexual harassment lawsuit.

Faulk is now embarking on a new football path. He was spotted at the recent NFL Players Association seminar and exam for new agents in Washington, and PFT has confirmed that he was indeed present.

Faulk has spent time with Seahawks running back Rashaad Penny during the 2019 offseason, and Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott has studied Faulk in an effort to enhance Zeke’s pass-catching skills. Both are represented by Faulk’s former agent, Rocky Arceneaux, and it’s possible that Faulk plans to join Arceneaux’s firm if/when Faulk secures NFLPA certification.

Drafted by the Colts, Faulk became a central figure of the Greatest Show on Turf edition of the St. Louis Rams, 20 years ago. He had an amazing four straight seasons with more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage — one with the Colts and three in a row with the Rams. Faulk won the NFL MVP award in 2000.

PFT 2019 storyline No. 6: How will the Packers resolve “the audible thing”?

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Most if not all of the top 30 storylines we’re following as the 2019 season approaches are posed as a question. For most of those questions, we don’t the answer. On storyline No. 6, we do.

The question is how will the Packers resolve the conflict between coach Matt LaFleur’s rigid offensive play-selection process and quarterback Aaron Rodgers‘ admitted desire for freedom at the line of scrimmage? The answer is this: Rodgers will win.

He’ll win because he’s the face of the franchise, the most powerful and most highly-paid employee of a public corporation who won’t be punished or benched or traded or cut if he does whatever he wants, whenever he wants.

It’s that simple. And Rodgers is smart enough to realize it. So the question is whether the Packers will let Rodgers do whatever he wants to do, or whether he’ll just do it.

The best play for LaFleur and Rodgers will be to come up with a way for the first-year coach to save face, with LaFleur deciding that he’ll make an exception for Rodgers as to a system that results in two plays being called in the huddle and the quarterback deciding, based on a predetermined set of parameters, which one to call. LaFleur either can say that he has decided to let Rodgers call whatever play he wants to call at the line of scrimmage, or Rodgers can just do it. Which he will, regardless of whether the team lets him.

Really, what will the Packers do? Roll with DeShone Kizer?

Rodgers is the guy, he knows he’s the guy, and the sooner the coach lets Rodgers fully be the guy the sooner this issue will be settled, once and for all.

Vic Fangio on Drew Lock: Hard thrower, not a quarterback yet

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Broncos rookie Drew Lock has a long way to go before he can become a polished passer, and not just a guy with a strong arm.

That’s the word from Broncos head coach Vic Fangio, who said today that Lock needs to learn to rely on more than just his arm strength.

“He’s not a quarterback yet,” Fangio said. “He’s a hard-throwing pitcher who doesn’t know how to pitch yet.”

When Joe Flacco entered the league as the Ravens’ first-round pick in 2008, some saw him as a hard thrower who wasn’t ready to be an NFL quarterback. Flacco ended up earning the starting job and starting all 16 games in his rookie year. Now Flacco is in Denver, ahead of Lock on the depth chart. Time will tell whether Lock can develop beyond just being a strong-armed passer and turn into an NFL starter.

Tyreek Hill contract negotiations could resume quickly

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When reports first emerged of off-field complications that could result in the suspension of Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill, the Chiefs and Hill were talking about a new contract. Those talks could resume, quickly.

Per a source with knowledge of the situation, Hill’s camp hopes to revisit contract talks “as soon as possible.”

Setting aside the issues that created months of controversy (but ultimately no punishment), Hill is perhaps the best receiver in all of football. Coupled with quarterback Patrick Mahomes, Hill forces the defense to cover every inch of the field, creating plenty of potential openings behind, beside, and in front of defensive backs and linebackers.

As a player, Hill is worth $20 million per year. Don’t be surprised if that’s the target in contract talks.

Hill is due to make $1.965 million in 2019, the final year of his rookie deal. A four-year, $80 million extension would put him under contract for five years, $81.965 million — an average at signing of $16.393 million.

Although Hill was exonerated by the league, the Chiefs may be concerned that future incidents could impact Hill’s availability. Those issues can be addressed during contract negotiations, with the Chiefs securing protection via language that would forfeit guarantees and/or delayed payments of signing-bonus installments.

NFL: Tyreek Hill’s comment to Crystal Espinal didn’t warrant discipline

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The NFL’s statement regarding the decision to not discipline receiver Tyreek Hill said nothing about the troubling remark that sparked Hill’s banishment from the balance of the Chiefs’ offseason workout program.

“You need to be terrified of me too, bitch,” Hill said to Crystal Espinal during an argument regarding whether Hill’s young son respects Hill or is terrified of him.

PFT asked the league for an explanation regarding the decision not to discipline Hill despite this comment, which was made by Hill to the same woman he admittedly assaulted while she was pregnant, in 2014.

“That audio tape was reviewed as part of the overall investigation, which also included speaking to multiple people, including family members on both sides and Tyreek Hill,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy wrote in an email to PFT. “In addition, other information was gathered over the last four months.

“When viewed in the context of the full 11-minute, 27-second audio recording and all other information gathered, the statement did not rise to a level of warranting discipline under the personal conduct policy.”

That’s the most surprising aspect of the NFL’s decision. While the evidence regarding allegations of child abuse or child endangerment, if any, apparently was inconclusive at best, the threat made by Hill to Espinal was documented, and Hill’s own lawyer admitted that Hill said what he said. Indeed, Hill’s lawyer called the comment “unacceptable” and “inexcusable, of course” in a letter sent to the NFL in early May.

The NFL ultimately decided that, for the purposes of the Personal Conduct Policy’s clear prohibition on “[a]ctual or threatened physical violence,” the comment was acceptable and excusable, and that it ultimately nothing that would require even a fine of Tyreek Hill.

NFL gradually has softened its hard-line approach to player discipline

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A wise man has said, “Once is an accident, twice is a trend. Four, five, or six times is a clear indication of a strategic shift in overall policy.” (I may have added the last part.)

It has become more and more clear and obvious over the past year or so that the NFL, reeling from sharp reductions in TV viewership during the 2016 and 2017 seasons, has decided to take a kindler and gentler approach to player discipline, in order to ensure that as many great players as possible are available to play in NFL regular-season and postseason games.

The change happened at some point after the Ezekiel Elliott case, which entailed (in my opinion) a Keystone cops investigation and a kangaroo court proceeding aimed at justifying that which the league office wanted to do: Suspend Elliott for six games.

Those wheels were put in motion before the election-induced ratings drop of 2016 was followed by the unexpected anthem-induced additional ratings drop of 2017, and the end result was the team that has become the top TV draw in the NFL spending 37.5 percent of a season without the straw that stirs its drink. As ratings plummeted in 2017, someone at the league office apparently did the math regarding the impact of not having great players on the field versus the impact of letting great players play despite off-field baggage.

The pendulum initially swung hard in the direction of taking a hard line with players after the elevator video emerged in the Ray Rice case. The Commissioner spent a couple of weeks genuinely concerned that he could lose his job in the uproar that ensued, and Roger Goodell undoubtedly resolved at that point that he would never, ever be accused again of going too easy on a player who misbehaves. That trend continued until Elliott’s suspension, which was followed by an all-out effort by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to get rid of Goodell.

Forced to choose between an assault on his job by a mob of outsiders and an assault on his job by one of his 32 bosses, and concerned about the very real impact on ratings of star players not playing, Goodell has now nudged the pendulum in the other direction, far more subtly and gradually than it moved in 2014.

It started with the league’s unspoken lenience for chronic substance-abuse policy violators like Josh Gordon, Martavis Bryant, and Randy Gregory. Although the trio currently is suspended, the league could have tossed each of them out of the sport early in 2018 under the clear terms of the policy. Instead, they each got extra chances until new suspensions were imposed, and the new suspensions weren’t for a minimum of one year (as they should have been). Indeed, there’s a chance that all three will be playing again this year.

Why? Because no one cares about marijuana anymore, and no one will complain that the league is letting guys who smoke pot play football.

The dynamic also has affected the league’s application of the Personal Conduct Policy. The investigation of multiple incidents involving then-Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt was in mothballs before video of him pushing and kicking a woman in the hallway of a Cleveland hotel emerged. Elliot, despite video showing him confronting and possibly shoving a 19-year-old security guard and notwithstanding Elliott’s status as a prior offender (which supposedly is a big deal under the Personal Conduct Policy), wasn’t punished. Now there’s Hill, who escaped any and all punishment with the league issuing a statement that doesn’t even address the menacing remark that prompted the Chiefs to send him away from the team’s offseason program.

Two years ago, Hill wouldn’t have been so fortunate. Now, as the league tries to build on momentum from 2018 TV numbers fueled by an offensive explosion about which the NFL privately bragged to reporters on a near-weekly basis, it’s better for the league to have Hill on the field than it is for the league to not have Hill on the field. Sure, there will be complaints and objections, maybe even a loosely-organized protest. But the potential impact on the league’s business from letting Hill play is smaller than the potential impact on the league’s business from not letting him play, and that’s ultimately all the league cares about.

Football is business. They say “football is family” because it’s good for business to say “football is family,” but football is business. The NFL got into the business of policing the private lives of players for P.R. purposes. The NFL enhanced those efforts in the face of strong objections to the NFL’s failure to be aggressive enough with players who got in trouble away from work. Now, business interests require an approach that entails the application a deeply flawed in-house justice system (a system that isn’t about justice at all) in a way that enhances business.

That’s why Hill wasn’t suspended, and that’s why players in similar situations will receive similar treatment, unless and until the league’s business interests once again compel a more aggressive approach to discipline. At that point, the pendulum will swing again, back in the direction of imposing overly strong punishments.

Chiefs: We are glad to welcome Tyreek Hill back to the team

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The NFL announced on Friday morning that Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill will not be disciplined under the Personal Conduct Policy after the league’s investigation of child abuse allegations against him.

That statement noted that Hill’s availability will be subject to conditions put in place by the district court, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the Chiefs that “include clinical evaluation and therapeutic intervention.” It also brought word that Hill “may attend Kansas City’s training camp and participate in all club activities.”

Hill did not take part in the team’s offseason program after the release of audio of a conversation with his child’s mother about the case just before the draft. In a statement of their own on Friday, the Chiefs said they will welcome Hill back.

“We have been informed of the decision by the National Football League that, based on the available evidence, the league has not found that Tyreek Hill violated the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy. Based on the information provided to us by the league, we have decided it is appropriate for Tyreek to return to the team at the start of training camp. The club fully supports the conditions for return laid out by the league and will continue to monitor any new developments in the case. We are glad to welcome Tyreek back to the team and look forward to the start of training camp next week.”

Chiefs veterans are due at training camp next Friday.

NFL decides not to discipline Tyreek Hill

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Three months after the emergence of an audio recording that prompted the Chiefs to ban receiver Tyreek Hill from the balance of the offseason program, the NFL has decided to take no action against Hill.

The league has announced that Hill will not be disciplined under the Personal Conduct Policy.

The NFL’s statement focuses on the child-abuse investigation, saying nothing about the apparent threat made to Crystal Espinal in the audio that surface an hour before the start of the 2019 draft. “You need to be terrified of me too, bitch,” Hill said to Espinal during an argument regarding whether their young son respects Hill or is terrified of him.

It’s currently unclear why the league opted not to discipline Hill for that comment, or whether the league even considered the possibility. What is clear is that Hill is clear to return to the Chiefs, join his teammates at training camp, and move forward with the final season of his rookie contract.

Doug Pederson fine with not having personnel authority

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Eagles coach Doug Pederson and General Manager Howie Roseman have a great working relationship, and Pederson says he’s not going to wreck things by seeking more personnel authority.

“I was hired to be the head football coach, not the general manager,” Pederson said, via NJ.com. “I was hired to teach football. Howie was hired to do the job that he does. . . . There has to be great communication and great dialogue between those departments: coaching and scouting.”

Pederson says he knows his own strengths and his own weaknesses, and watching a college player and seeing how he’ll translate to the NFL isn’t his strength. So Pederson trusts Roseman and the scouts he oversees to do that job.

“That’s not my expertise. I can sit here and watch tape and write a report, and say ‘this guy can do this, this, and this.’ And until we get him in the building and coach him up, you just don’t know. You lean on so much on our scouting department,” Pederson said.

For the Eagles, that’s a refreshing change from Pederson’s predecessor, Chip Kelly, who demanded more and more personnel authority — and ran the roster into the ground in the process. Pederson is happy to stick with coaching, Roseman is building the roster and the results speak for themselves.

Sean McVay says Todd Gurley is “feeling great”

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There’s been speculation about the health of Rams running back Todd Gurley‘s knee since last season, but coach Sean McVay says Gurley will prove he’s fine on the field.

McVay told Jimmy Kimmel that Gurley has taken it slow this offseason because the Rams had a plan for keeping him healthy, and the expectation is that Gurley will be good to go.

“He’s good. I think he’s feeling great,” McVay said of Gurley. “One of the things about Todd is, great competitor. I think he’s earned the right to be able to have the plan we had this offseason. I can’t wait to get him back going and I know he’s ready to go and it’s going to be fun for the Rams this year.”

The good news for the Rams is that they found last year that McVay’s offense works well without Gurley, as they had two blowout victories when Gurley missed the final two games of the regular season. The Rams’ offense should be great again no matter how Gurley’s knee is doing.

Will Falcons, Julio Jones do a deal?

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Grady Jarrett? Check.

Deion Jones? Check.

Other guy named Jones who is slightly more important to the team? No check yet.

The Falcons have taken care of significant business this week, signing two key defensive players, but still no business has been done between the Falcons and one of their most significant players, receiver Julio Jones.

He has been jostling for a big-money deal for more than a year, but he still hasn’t gotten one. In 2018, a holdout was avoided by an eleventh-hour Band-Aid along with a presumption that, come 2019, the situation would be addressed with a new, long-term contract.

Training camp opens in three days, and Jones previously has said he won’t hold out. But he based that vow on the vow that was made to him by owner Arthur Blank.

Mr. Blank gave us his word. . . . That’s golden,” Jones said earlier this month. “[Blank’s] word is that it’s going to get done. . . . There’s no stress on my end. I’m not thinking about it.”

He may be thinking about it plenty if the deal ultimately offered by the Falcons is less golden than Jones expects it to be. Indeed, it’s one thing to intend to sign a player to a contract; it’s another to commit to giving the player what we wants. And it remains unclear what Jones wants, other than: More.

Jones seems to be sensitive to the fact that fans resent players who play hardball to get paid, even though players have no equity, experience limited careers, and endure all of the physical risks. Fans never get mad at teams for squeezing players, but fans hate it when players squeeze teams. Upside-down as that concept may be, Jones seems to be keenly aware of it, while nevertheless attempting to get what he deserves: More.

For the Falcons, the challenge becomes paying Jones more but not so much more that they’re paying for more than what he currently can do. Teams don’t pay for past performance, but in this case that’s precisely what Jones may want — a correction to what has been a below-market deal in recent years, even if that means the Falcons will within the next year or two (or sooner) conclude that they’re paying more than they should be paying for a guy whose best days as a player may be behind him.

For now, a holdout may end up being in front of him, if the Falcons don’t literally put in front of him the kind of more that will get Jones sign his name and move forward.

PFT 2019 storyline No. 7: Can Mitchell Trubisky take the Bears to the next level?

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The 2018 Chicago Bears stunned the NFL with an unlikely NFC North championship in the first year of coach Matt Nagy’s tenure and the second season of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky‘s career. With Trubisky now having a full season under his belt both as a starter and as the starter in Nagy’s system, the question is whether Trubisky (under Nagy’s guidance) can take the Bears to the next level.

The Bears don’t get to the next level very often, and when they do they don’t hang around for long. Successful seasons are sporadic, followed by disappointment that often lasts for several years. For the Bears, consecutive playoff berths haven’t happened since 2005 and 2006. And the Bears are a long way from their 1984 through 1991 run, when they played in the postseason every year but one.

Last year’s division title ended the longest playoff drought for the Bears since the merger, and Bears fans with a keen understanding of the team’s history will be bracing for a  back slide. Whether that does or doesn’t happen may hinge in many respects on what Trubisky can or can’t do with the offense.

The folks at Madden don’t believe in Trubisky, slapping him with a 75 rating. He’s clearly much better than that; he completed 66.6 percent of his passes, he threw 24 touchdown passes against 12 interceptions, and he averaged 7.4 yards per attempt. He added 421 rushing yards, averaging 6.2 per run.

Ultimately, the question for 2019 will be whether Trubisky is good enough to elevate the entire offense, to complement (and boost) the defense, and to play the foundation for not just another home playoff game but maybe a bye week — and maybe a postseason victory. Opposing defenses will have had a full year’s worth of film to digest and dissect; Nagy’s ability to counter that and Trubisky’s ability to execute that plan becomes the key.