Posts by Jeff Fedotin

Why Jonathan Martin retired

Offensive tackle Jonathan Martin retired before the 2015 season, but Martin’s departure from football has nothing do with his infamous bullying scandal or his sometimes inconsistent play.

Instead it was a back injury suffered prior to training camp that forced him out of football.

“It just never got better,” said Martin’s agent, Kenny Zuckerman. “He

Offensive tackle Jonathan Martin retired before the 2015 season, but Martin’s departure from football has nothing do with his infamous bullying scandal or his sometimes inconsistent play.

Instead it was a back injury suffered prior to training camp that forced him out of football.

“It just never got better,” said Martin’s agent, Kenny Zuckerman. “He was just hoping it would just get better and better every day, and it just didn’t.”

Doctors said that Martin had to rest his back for four to eight weeks without engaging in physical activity — something that would’ve put him well behind for this NFL season — and then he was a candidate for spinal fusion surgery, a risky operation that could have sidelined him a year.

According to Zuckerman, the injury left Martin very discouraged, something that went contrary to some media depictions that labeled him as a player who lacked passion for football. He agonized over what to do about his playing career before deciding to retire just shy of his 26th birthday.

“He went through a tough time, but he loved playing,” Zuckerman said. “(The injury) consumed his mind 24 hours a day.”

After the Dolphins’ turmoil in 2013, few would have guessed that the NFL stay of Richie Incognito, the player who tormented Martin, would outlast Martin’s.

Martin, who was drafted in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft, was just 23 years old at the time of the scandal and played one of the most important positions in football — offensive tackle. He entered the NFL as a major prospect, having protected quarterback Andrew Luck while at Stanford.

Incognito was a 30-year-old guard, who had been dismissed from both Nebraska and Oregon during college, and was being kicked to the curb by his third NFL team.

Surprisingly, Incognito is now slated as the starting left guard for the Bills while Martin has moved on with his career.

Zuckerman said there is “zero percent” chance that Martin plays again — regardless of whether the 25-year-old’s health unexpectedly improves.

Instead Martin, whose mother is a corporate lawyer for Toyota, likely will go to law school.

“If it was a guy who didn’t have that plan, I could see him sitting a year (and playing again),” Zuckerman said. “He’s a very bright guy … He’s ready to move on to the next part of life.”

After attending Harvard-Westlake (Calif.) High, a school known for its lofty academics, Martin, who majored in ancient Greek and Roman classics at Stanford, could have been the first ever fourth generation African-American at Harvard.

He was heavily recruited by the Ivy League school attended by his mother, father, grandfather and great-grandfather.

Instead Martin went to Stanford, where he became a second-team All-American in 2011, before starting 32 games during his three years in the NFL.

After leaving the Dolphins, the 6-5, 315-pound Martin signed with the 49ers and played for his college head coach, Jim Harbaugh. Martin started nine games at right tackle but often struggled while playing on an injury-plagued offensive line and was cut after the season.

In the ensuing offseason, he was claimed off of waivers by the Panthers, a team with a porous offensive line.

Martin, who was mostly playing behind Michael Oher of The Blind Side fame on the left side of the Panthers’ line during offseason practices, was reportedly scheduled to make $1.042 million this season.

Following his retirement from the Panthers, Martin’s camp maintains that he will not be negatively linked to the bullying scandal but instead serve as a positive example of resilience.

“He is a role model for kids that are going through things like he went through,” Zuckerman said.

Follow Jeff on Twitter @JFedotin

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Chasing the Patriots: Bills and Jets share same strengths, weaknesses

The defending Super Bowl champion Patriots have won the AFC East six consecutive years, but they are poised to be knocked off the division’s top perch.

They have lost their top three cornerbacks from last season, and the NFL upheld a four-game suspension of QB Tom Brady.

Two of their challengers in the division —

The defending Super Bowl champion Patriots have won the AFC East six consecutive years, but they are poised to be knocked off the division’s top perch.

They have lost their top three cornerbacks from last season, and the NFL upheld a four-game suspension of QB Tom Brady.

Two of their challengers in the division — the Bills and Jets — are similarly constructed teams with the same strengths and problems.

Both the Bills and Jets have very good defensive units, something that shouldn’t come as a surprise considering the main link between the franchises is Rex Ryan, the son of Buddy Ryan, who popularized the 46 defense.

After six years with the Jets, Rex Ryan enters his first year coaching the Bills. Ryan’s replacement in New York, Todd Bowles, actually employs a very similar gameplan involving a blitz-heavy 3-4 D.

Bowles, though, inherits the same problem that plagued Ryan in New York and still negatively affects him in Buffalo — poor QB play.

Although both teams have two of the most uncertain QB situations in the league, their defensive lines are two of the best.

The Jets’ D-line took a hit when defensive end Sheldon Richardson, who was just charged for resisting arrest after driving 143 mph, was suspended four games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. But even without him, the Jets have Muhammad Wilkerson, a 6-4, 315-pounder with 16 sacks the last two years, and rookie Leonard Williams, who was regarded as the best defensive player in the draft before dropping to No. 6 overall because of rumors of a lingering shoulder injury that he claims were unfounded.

Buffalo’s version of Richardson is Marcell Dareus. The No. 3 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft has the versatility to play nose tackle, 4-3 defensive tackle or 3-4 defensive end. The talented Dareus is stout versus the run, and his 28.5 sacks in his four years in the league demonstrate his pass rush ability. His issues come off the field where he has numerous incidents, including ones involving drag racing and drugs.

On the Bills’ four-man line, Dareus lined up next to Kyle Williams, a high-motor player who has 16 sacks the past two years, last season.

Ryan will likely go with three down linemen this year, moving defensive ends Mario Williams — the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft — and Jerry Hughes to 3-4 outside linebackers. Williams has 91 career sacks, and the duo combined for 24 sacks last season.

The Bills had the third best pass defense in the league last year not only because of their ability to get to the quarterback, but also because they have two former top 11 picks — Leodis McKelvin and Stephon Gilmore — starting at cornerback.

Ryan will love having those corners. He can trust them in single coverage, allowing him to blitz multiple defenders.

His penchant for doing that is why Ryan lobbied the Jets front office to re-sign Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, the cover cornerbacks who shut down receivers while the Jets advanced to the AFC Championship Game in 2010.

Unfortunately for Ryan, the Jets re-signed them only after he left.

Those secondary additions — and the free-agent acquisition of CB Buster Skrine — should drastically improve a New York defense that ranked sixth in the NFL last season but only 14th against the pass.

And the Jets D will have to be outstanding to compensate for an anemic offense.

The offensive woes begin at quarterback where New York has error-prone Geno Smith, who has turned the ball over 41 times in 30 career games.

Rookie quarterback Bryce Petty, drafted in the fourth round, has potential, but he is somewhat of a project because he needs to adjust from the spread offense at Baylor to the Jets’ pro-style attack.

There’s a reason Jets QB Ryan Fitzpatrick is on his sixth team; he is whom you want as your No. 2 quarterback but not your starter.

One of Fitzpatrick’s former teams, the Bills, have similar QB issues. Matt Cassel, the odds-on favorite to win the job, is like Fitzpatrick. An excellent backup, he could not hold onto the starting job in Kansas City or Minnesota.

EJ Manuel, the first quarterback selected in the 2013 NFL Draft, is not dynamic enough. He has completed under 59 percent of his passes in both seasons and never averaged more than 6.44 yards per pass.

Tyrod Taylor also has a shot at the starting job.

Whoever quarterbacks the Bills will at least have LeSean McCoy and Fred Jackson at running back, potentially allowing Buffalo to play a ball-control attack, which puts less pressure on the passer.

McCoy has 2,926 rush yards over the last two seasons, and Jackson has surpassed 925 rushing yards three times.

The Bills have young talent at receiver. Sammy Watkins enters his second year while Robert Woods enters his third. They combined for 1,681 receiving yards last year.

They also signed WR Percy Harvin to a one-year contract. Harvin played for Ryan last year in New York after the versatile receiver previously wore out his welcome in Minnesota and Seattle.

The Jets took on another talented — but somewhat troubled — receiver in Brandon Marshall to complement Eric Decker.

But like the Bills, the Jets would be better off taking the game out of the hands of whichever dubious quarterback wins the QB job and relying on a deep RB group.

The Jets ranked third in the NFL in rushing last year and are even deeper this year. Though lacking an elite back, New York has Chris Ivory, Bilal Powell, Stevan Ridley and Zac Stacy. Each has at least one 697-yard season to his name.

Time will tell if strong running games and defenses will be enough to make up for poor QB play — and enough to finally unseat the Patriots.

Follow Jeff on Twitter @JFedotin

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How the Belichick-Parcells relationship mirrors Coach K and Knight’s

Mentor teaches pupil. Pupil bests mentor. Mentor and pupil grow apart. Mentor and pupil become close again.

It’s a narrative that describes two of the greatest coaching pairings — Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells, along with Bobby Knight and Mike Krzyzewski — in the modern era, and it’s just one of the ties that bind

Mentor teaches pupil. Pupil bests mentor. Mentor and pupil grow apart. Mentor and pupil become close again.

It’s a narrative that describes two of the greatest coaching pairings — Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells, along with Bobby Knight and Mike Krzyzewski — in the modern era, and it’s just one of the ties that bind the four legends.

Belichick coached on the defensive side of the ball under Parcells from 1983-1990 with the New York Giants, 1996 with the New England Patriots and 1997-1999 with the New York Jets.

The two were so tied at the hip that Belichick was called “Little Bill,” and Parcells was called “Big Bill.” Little Bill, though, has now surpassed Parcells. As head coach he has more Super Bowl titles (four to two), more Super Bowl appearances (six to three), and more regular-season victories (211 to 172).

Coach K played under Knight from 1966-1969 at Army and coached under him at Indiana from 1974-1975. When Krzyzewski’s father died near the end of his senior year, Knight flew to Chicago to mourn with the family and he attended Krzyzewski’s wedding four days after his player graduated from college.

Like Belichick, Krzyzewski similarly exceeded his confidante and former boss. He now has more NCAA championships (five to three), Final Four appearances (12 to five), and total victories (1,018 to 902) than Knight.

The striking parallels, though, go beyond a student gaining more acclaim than his teacher.

The falling out and reconciliation

The plan all along was for Belichick to succeed Parcells as head coach with the Jets. However, Belichick, who saw a more stable ownership with the Patriots and a chance to spread his wings, resigned from that position to become the Patriots’ head coach.

“At that point in time, in that situation, I did what I felt I needed to do and I don’t have any regrets about that,” Belichick said in Parcells: A Football Life. “Certainly a lot of things could have been handled differently.”

Belichick’s move to New England not only added more fuel to the Patriots-Jets rivalry, but also created acrimony between the coaches. The two remained estranged for about six years.

But after Parcells watched Belichick win Super Bowl XXXIX and get doused with Gatorade while his father, Steve, was at his side, Parcells was moved. He sent a note describing his joy in seeing them enjoy that father-son moment.

More than a year after that, Belichick invited Parcells, the then-Cowboys coach, to play golf at Nantucket Golf Club, a gracious act that Scott Pioli, Parcells’ son-in-law and former Belichick right-hand man, is presumed to have played a role in.

Shortly thereafter, the coaches regularly called each other.

Belichick, whose girlfriend was living in Florida, even purchased a condominium unit two floors above Parcells’ Miami-area place in 2009.

“We just had a difference of opinion on some things,” Parcells said in his book. “I wasn’t happy that we were kind of at different ends of the spectrum for a while. I wouldn’t say we’re buddy buddies, but we get along.”

The ultimate gesture came when Belichick left Patriots training camp to attend Parcells’ 2013 induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

When Coach K went to his first Final Four in 1986, a beaming Knight supported him by wearing a Duke button in Dallas.

For his sixth Final Four, Coach K’s defending champion faced Knight’s Indiana team in the semifinal. Duke won 81-78, and the coaching legends brushed past each other after the game, barely shaking hands.

It was never revealed what led to the frostiness in the relationship. John Feinstein, a Duke alum and author of the Knight tell-all book, A Season on the Brink, conjectured that Knight felt Krzyzewski had not publicly credited him enough for his success.

Like it did for Parcells and Belichick, the Hall of Fame helped mend fences for the basketball coaches.

Krzyzewski asked Knight to introduce him during his induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001, and the two became close once again.

During a 2006 holiday tournament, Krzyzewski told me he always roots for Knight, who was then coaching Texas Tech, to win, equating it to cheering for a family member.

When Krzyzewski surpassed Knight in 2011 as the all-time winningest men’s basketball coach in Division I history, Knight was there announcing the game for ESPN. The two warmly embraced.

“I just told Coach I love him,” Krzyzewski said. “I wouldn’t be in this position without him. It’s a moment shared. I know he’s very proud and I’m very proud to have been somebody who’s worked under him and studied him and tried to be like him.”

Military ties

All four have deep connections to the military.

Bill Belichick’s father, Steve, coached at Navy from 1956-1989. The Midshipmen coach helped indoctrinate his son, who learned how to scout at the age of 10, into the football world.

Steve coached against Parcells, the Army head coach from 1966 to 1969, in the famed Army-Navy rivalry clashes. Parcells became the head coach at another service academy, the Air Force, in 1978. It was his first head coaching job at any level.

Knight, who was nicknamed the “General” in part because he coached at Army from 1965 to 1971, recruited Krzyzewski. Coach K then served as Army head coach from 1975 to 1980 before becoming Duke head coach.

To further complete this coaching quadrangle, Parcells and Knight were the respective head coaches of football and basketball at Army at the same time.

They became great friends, playing heated basketball games against each other and regularly hanging out in Knight’s basement or Parcells’ living room.

Knight would counsel Parcells on prospective jobs, once telling him the Indiana head coaching job had opened, though Parcells would accept the Giants’ head coaching position.

Three years before, Knight recommended Duke hire an under-the-radar coach with a last name that was difficult to pronounce. He would go on to become the NCAA’s all-time winningest men’s basketball coach.

Follow Jeff on Twitter @Jfedotin

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Why the Vikings are on the rise

After a 7-9 finish last year, the Minnesota Vikings are a trendy pick to make the playoffs in 2015 — and for good reason.

Although the young talent on the defense may represent the biggest reason for the Vikings’ ascension, much of the optimism centers on returning star, RB Adrian Peterson, and the new offensive

After a 7-9 finish last year, the Minnesota Vikings are a trendy pick to make the playoffs in 2015 — and for good reason.

Although the young talent on the defense may represent the biggest reason for the Vikings’ ascension, much of the optimism centers on returning star, RB Adrian Peterson, and the new offensive face of the franchise, QB Teddy Bridgewater.

The excitement over Bridgewater is understandable, considering the Vikings went 31-48-1 from 2010-14 when the team’s major problem was a void at quarterback.

Now they have their best young passer since Daunte Culpepper. (Brett Favre starred in his first season in Minnesota in 2009, but at 40 years old, he was not a long-term answer at the position.)

Bridgewater enters his second season after going 6-6 in his 12 starts as a rookie. Most encouraging is how his play improved as the season wore on. During four of his last five games, he posted a QB rating of 90.2 or better. He threw eight touchdowns and five interceptions during that stretch while completing at least 68 percent of his passes in each game.

He put up those promising numbers despite being without one of the best running backs in NFL history. Peterson played in just one game in 2014 after being placed on an exempt list due to child abuse charges.

Look for Peterson, who rushed for 1,266 and 2,097 yards in the two previous seasons, to play with added motivation in 2015. The last time he had a chip on his shoulder — after coming back from an ACL injury — he finished with an MVP season.

Though he’s a physical marvel, Peterson has turned 30, the age when most running backs begin showing slippage. But the Vikings finally have a player who can spell Peterson in Jerick McKinnon, who averaged 4.8 yards per carry as a rookie last season.

They are not the only offensive playmakers who will help out the 22-year-old Bridgewater. He now has a deep threat after the Vikings traded a fifth-round pick for wide receiver Mike Wallace.

Even though the speedster didn’t live up to the expectations of his lofty contract with the Miami Dolphins, he still had 862 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns last year, and a change of scenery could provide a career boost.

His receiving mate, the versatile Cordarrelle Patterson, showed great promise as a rushing/receiving/special teams threat while scoring nine touchdowns as a rookie in 2013, though his play regressed last season.

To resuscitate Wallace’s career and advance Patterson’s, the Vikings have the right man in offensive coordinator Norv Turner, an excellent playcaller and QB guru.

Unlike most well-regarded offensive coordinators, Turner emphasizes the running game over the passing game, though he mixes in the deep ball, a result of his Air Coryell roots.

With Turner in charge of the offense, it allows second-year head coach Mike Zimmer to devote his time to his specialty — the defense, a 4-3 unit that features press coverage in the secondary.

The D — with players like Jared Allen, the Williams Wall, Antoine Winfield and co. — used to be the hallmark of Minnesota’s success, but as that group grew old, the Vikings fell apart.

The Vikings have just one defensive starter from their last NFC Championship Game appearance — Chad Greenway, the linebacker who has started 123 games.

Minnesota has remade their defense alongside Greenway with a slew of young defensive stars, which it acquired through the draft.

One reason the Vikings felt comfortable parting with Allen before the 2014 season was the emergence of their other pass rushers. Everson Griffen and veteran Brian Robison combined for 32 sacks the last two years, though a pectoral injury could limit the latter during training camp.

Aside from Greenway and Robison, it’s a young corps.

Before a knee injury ended his 2014 season, linebacker Anthony Barr was in contention for Rookie of the Year voting. A multi-talented player, he had 55 tackles, four sacks, two forced fumbles and a touchdown through 12 weeks last year.

Projected as a 2015 first-round pick, Eric Kendricks slipped to the Vikings in the second round (45th overall). The best middle linebacker of the draft has special instincts and intelligence while also possessing great lateral agility and a 38-inch vertical leap.

With the 11th overall pick, the Vikings selected cornerback Trae Waynes, a perfect fit for Zimmer’s man-press scheme. The 6-1, 183-pounder has the blend of size and speed to handle NFC North receivers.

His 4.23 speed at the NFL Combine was the fastest among all defensive backs, and he also had the fastest 20-yard split (2.40 seconds) among all participants.

What was once a source of weakness — the defensive backfield — may soon become a strength for the Vikings. They can pair Waynes with ballhawking safety Harrison Smith, who has three touchdowns and 10 interceptions in his three-year career, and cornerback Xavier Rhodes, a first-round pick in 2013.

Beyond the young talent aboard, the future looks bright in Minnesota. The Vikings’ new stadium, Minnesota Stadium, will open in 2016. And in 2018, it will host the Super Bowl.

Follow Jeff on Twitter @JFedotin

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The Chiefs have Georgia on their mind

Immediately after Chris Conley was selected by the Chiefs in third round of the 2015 NFL Draft, second-year Chiefs quarterback Aaron Murray texted the Georgia wide receiver.

“Get ready to come and grind with me again,” messaged the former Bulldogs passer.

Murray, Georgia’s all-time leader in passing yards and touchdown passes, threw to Conley for

Immediately after Chris Conley was selected by the Chiefs in third round of the 2015 NFL Draft, second-year Chiefs quarterback Aaron Murray texted the Georgia wide receiver.

“Get ready to come and grind with me again,” messaged the former Bulldogs passer.

Murray, Georgia’s all-time leader in passing yards and touchdown passes, threw to Conley for three years, including in 2013, when Conley led the team with 45 receptions and 651 receiving yards.

The duo is elated about their reunion Kansas City.

“It helps tremendously. It helps because Aaron knows how I work,” Conley said. “He’s able to ease that transition a little more.”

Perhaps the Chiefs will start planting some Sanford Stadium-like hedges outside Arrowhead Stadium. In the past five years, Kansas City has drafted five Georgia players.

That group includes Murray, Conley, safety Sanders Commings, linebacker Justin Houston and linebacker Ramik Wilson, who was selected in the fourth round (118th overall) of this 2015 NFL Draft.

Under general manager John Dorsey and head coach Andy Reid, the Chiefs have selected four former Georgia players since 2013 and at least one Bulldog every year.

In addition Wilson has become close to Houston, who was drafted by former Chiefs GM Scott Pioli. The elite pass rusher often comes back to Georgia at the end of NFL seasons and works out or rehabs there. Wilson and Murray both grew up in Tampa, Florida, and have known each other for years prior to reconnecting in Kansas City.

“It’s a great fit,” Wilson said. “It makes (it) feel like home. I can go to them for anything.”

While the Georgia players enjoy a comfortable setting in Kansas City with plenty of former teammates, the Chiefs get players who have proven their ability at the highest level of college football.

“Everyone always talks about the speed of the game and they say the speed of the SEC is the closest you get,” Conley said. “Hopefully that will translate.”

That SEC background is likely one reason Dorsey remains enamored with Georgia players. However, he drafted Conley and Wilson because of their specific skill set — not just their conference pedigree.

The Chiefs liked Conley so much that they traded their third-round pick (80th pick overall) and sixth-round pick (193rd overall) to the Vikings in exchange for Minnesota’s 76th overall pick.

The 6-2, 213-pound Conley has an impressive blend of size and athleticism. At the 2015 NFL Combine, he led all participants with a 45-inch vertical leap and tied for fourth with a 40 time of 4.35 seconds.

Conley used that speed to average 18.3 yards per catch while posting 657 receiving yards and scoring eight touchdowns during his senior year in 2014.

“He can go deep. He really does have some nice feet in terms of running after the catch and making guys miss. He’s got enough size to break the arm tackle,” Dorsey said. “He has got the athletic skills to just kind of blend right in.”

Conley has blended in quickly thus far, wowing observers and teammates during offseason practices.

“He can play some football,” said veteran wide receiver Jason Avant. “He has the potential to be really, really good.”

The Chiefs need Conley to be good and quickly — given the glaring hole on Kansas City’s roster. The Chiefs’ wide receivers did not score a touchdown last season.

Wilson also fits a need at middle linebacker where 32-year-old star Derrick Johnson is coming off a season-ending torn Achilles tendon.

The rookie’s production and range belie his 4.74 speed in the 40. A three-year starter at Georgia who can adeptly cover tight ends, the 6-2, 237-pound linebacker led the SEC in tackles in 2013 and added 110 more in 2014.

His fellow Bulldogs linebacker, Houston, remains unsigned after the franchise player led the NFL with 22 sacks last year. Meanwhile, Commings, who is trying to overcome two injury-plagued seasons, will try to help fill the void left by safety Eric Berry.

The challenge for Murray, the presumptive No. 3 quarterback and a possible eventual successor to starter Alex Smith, is to continue to master the complexities of the Chiefs’ West Coast Offense.

“Even Aaron is still learning things about this offense,” Conley said. “When Aaron was at Georgia, he knew everything there was. This offense is so big and grand, and every year wrinkles are added.”

As Conley tries to master his own playbook and adjust to life in the NFL, having fellow Bulldogs on the roster only can help the rookie receiver.

“There are so (many) new things going on and so many things flying,” Conley said. “Having familiar faces and guys who can kind of show you the ropes is so beneficial at this point. I’m loving it.”

Follow Jeff on Twitter @Jfedotin

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Why Michael Sam can excel in the CFL

Though Michael Sam did not play a regular-season down in the NFL, he has the skill set to flourish up north.

“He can be an outstanding CFL rush end,” Jim Popp, Montreal Alouettes vice president, general manager and director of football operations, told NFP.

The Alouettes, who signed Sam on May 22, run an aggressive

Though Michael Sam did not play a regular-season down in the NFL, he has the skill set to flourish up north.

“He can be an outstanding CFL rush end,” Jim Popp, Montreal Alouettes vice president, general manager and director of football operations, told NFP.

The Alouettes, who signed Sam on May 22, run an aggressive scheme with a four-man front, which emphasizes pressuring the passer, and employ bump-and-run coverage in the secondary.

Moreover, the CFL has 12 players on each side of the ball, and the extra player is typically a receiver on offense and a defensive back on defense. So, the Alouettes use a 4-3-5 scheme or often a dime look with six defensive backs. Those extra secondary players focus on coverage responsibilities, which will allow Sam to concentrate on pressuring the quarterback.

“There will be times where he has to drop,” Popp said. “But 95 percent of the time he’ll be rushing the passer.”

That should enable Sam, 25, to avoid one of the weaknesses in his game — dropping back into coverage — that prevented him from hanging on with an NFL team.

Sam, however, has a knack for rushing the passer.

In the best conference in the country, he recorded 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss during his senior season at Missouri and was named the SEC’s Co-Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. During the 2014 NFL preseason, he tied for fourth in the league with three sacks.

But the 6-2, 260-pound Sam, who ran a 4.99 in the 40 at the NFL’s veterans combine in March, was knocked by NFL teams for being a tweener — too slow to be a 3-4 linebacker and too small to play defensive line.

The CFL is often a refuge for players deemed to have inadequate speed or size for the NFL. Doug Flutie, who NFL teams rejected because of his 5’10” height, became a six-time Most Outstanding Player in the CFL.

“We don’t get caught up in measurables,” Popp said.

Popp also is not concerned by the fact that Sam is gay.

“Absolutely not,” said Popp, who lauded Sam’s character and leadership. “We see everyone as equal.”

Sam was not only the first openly gay player to be drafted by the NFL, but Popp also said he is the first one in the CFL, and the CFL is embracing his barrier-breaking status.

“The league office is very happy,” Popp said.

Sam has been on the Alouettes’ negotiation list since college.

The CFL has a draft, but it is only for Canadian citizens. Free agents can be placed on a negotiation list of 35 players, a first-come, first-serve, private list only known to CFL teams and the league office.

Noteworthy players who have been on the Alouettes’ negotiation list include Russell Wilson (who was once deemed too short for the NFL and was recruited to N.C. State by future Alouettes coach Marc Trestman), Clay Matthews (a former USC walk-on once considered too slight), Colin Kaepernick (once considered a product of a gimmicky system at Nevada) and Tim Tebow.

CFL teams can take a player off at any time but cannot tamper with someone else’s list. Hypothetically, they could even put high school players on that list, though they cannot negotiate with them or college players until they have declared for the draft or already have spent four years in college.

The Rams drafted Sam in the seventh round (249th overall) in 2014 before releasing him prior to the season. With Chris Long and Robert Quinn holding down a stacked defensive end group, St. Louis may not have been the best fit.

“That was one of the strongest points of that team,” Popp said. “That was (working) against him.”

Receiving playing time with the Alouettes, a vaunted CFL franchise that has made eight Grey Cup appearances in the 21st century, is not guaranteed either. Defensive end John Bowman, the franchise’s all-time leading sacker, leads a deep group.

“The position we’re bringing him into (has) four very good guys,” Popp said.

Sam signed a reported one-year deal, and the Alouettes hold the option for the 2016 season, though Popp often allows his players to move on if they receive NFL interest.

So if Sam can rise up the Montreal depth chart and produce big this year — like former B.C. Lions pass rusher Cameron Wake — he could find himself back in the NFL within a year.

Sam begins his CFL journey at the Alouettes’ rookie camp, which starts Wednesday.

After his NFL campaign focused on how a gay football player would mesh with his team, the narrative now has become whether he can make an impact on the field.

“This young man just wants to be a football player,” Popp said. “He wants to play.”

Follow Jeff on Twitter @JFedotin

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Why Travis Kelce is poised for a huge season

When the Chiefs released veteran tight end Anthony Fasano over the offseason, it pained his younger position mate, Travis Kelce.

“When you see Fasano go, that’s a brother. That rips your heart out,” Kelce said. “It just lets you know that it is a business and everybody’s spot is vulnerable.”

It also meant that Kansas

When the Chiefs released veteran tight end Anthony Fasano over the offseason, it pained his younger position mate, Travis Kelce.

“When you see Fasano go, that’s a brother. That rips your heart out,” Kelce said. “It just lets you know that it is a business and everybody’s spot is vulnerable.”

It also meant that Kansas City had high expectations for Kelce to replace Fasano —who started 22 games for the Chiefs the last two years — and then some.

Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said the 25-year-old Kelce has the potential to be an elite player, and he’s at a crucial position in the K.C. offense.

Even with the free-agent signing of wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, the Chiefs lack strong receiving options. And in their ball-control, short-passing offense — K.C. ranked 24th in the league in yards per attempt — the team often employed 3-TE-sets last season.

The Chiefs still have basketball player-turned-tight end Demetrius Harris and did draft James O’Shaughnessy in the fifth round of the 2015 NFL Draft, but the onus will be on Kelce, who caught 67 passes for 862 yards and five touchdowns in 2014 during what basically was his rookie year.

A 2013 third-round pick, he played in just one game his rookie season because of a knee injury. He was placed on injured reserve in October of 2013 and underwent microfracture surgery, where holes are drilled in the knee to stimulate cartilage growth.

Kelce excitedly launched a comeback, returning to action last season when he burst on the scene with a 69-yard touchdown reception during the first preseason game, a 41-39 victory against the Bengals.

“I felt like I was in flames, just running around there with my head on fire,” Kelce told NFP. “It was a huge mile marker for me.”

Once the 6-6, 250-pounder passed that initial marker, he continued to flourish.

And now nearly two years removed from microfracture, he should see even better results this season. Patients who have undergone major knee surgeries typically report that it’s not until two years postoperatively that they begin feeling 100 percent.

“Without a doubt … the cartilage has got to regrow,” Kelce said. “I’m definitely feeling more and more comfortable.”

He’s also growing more accustomed to the offense that uses him in myriad roles, including in motion and chip blocking pass rushers.

“If you watch the film,” Kelce said, “you can see me everywhere on the field.”

Indeed he stands outs, exuberantly celebrating his touchdowns — and even first downs.

“He’s tremendously talented, loves to play the game,” Reid said. “He’s like a little kid out there.”

Kelce’s energy pumps up teammates during games and even mundane practices and meetings.

“When you’re having a bad day,” said Brandon Barden, a tight end on last year’s Chiefs practice squad, “just look at him, and he’ll kind of give you that little spark you need to get through.”

Kelce’s enthusiasm is best displayed during touchdown celebrations, including The Nae Nae, The Shmoney Dance, The Bow and Arrow and even one that honors WWE wrestler Ric Flair.

“I do have some fun when I do get in the end zone,” Kelce said. “That’s for sure.”

It’s a carryover from what he did growing up while “being a knucklehead in the backyard trying to get in the heads of the guys we were playing around with.”

“Everything that I come out here and show,” Kelce said, “is a product of who I am and where I’m from.”

He grew up in suburban Cleveland with his brother, Jason Kelce, who has started 46 games at center for the Eagles.

Reid drafted and coached Jason, who is two years older than Travis, when he was in Philadelphia. That bond likely factored into the Chiefs drafting Travis and knowing he could make an impact in the NFL.

“It might’ve helped out a little bit that they knew the kind of family that me and Jason came from,” Travis said. “We’re both hardworking guys and love what we do.”

Upon being selected by Kansas City, Travis picked his brother’s brain on Reid, and Jason emphasized the vigilance and attention to detail of Reid, a former offensive lineman at BYU and a tight ends coach for the Brett Favre-era Packers.

“He was going to hold you accountable. He wasn’t going to let anything slide,” Travis said his brother explained. “Every fundamental, even when you think he’s not watching, he’s watching every single second.”

Reid likely will be keeping a close eye on Kelce’s blocking, an area that he needs to improve to be on par with his stellar body control, route running and ability to gain yards after the catch.

As he continues to hone those skills, Kelce seems ready to use his breakout 2014 campaign as a springboard for 2015.

“Everybody is really excited about Travis,” Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said, “We all saw last year what he’s capable of.”

Follow Jeff on Twitter @JFedotin

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Shane Ray and Randy Gregory: Same predicament, different outlook

CHICAGO—Shane Ray and Randy Gregory endured a similar fate.

The talented pass rushers plummeted in the 2015 NFL Draft because of marijuana issues.

“Shane is kind of like me. He made a bad choice.” Gregory told NFP. “I wish nothing but the best for him, hope he makes some smarter decisions in the future and I'm

CHICAGO—Shane Ray and Randy Gregory endured a similar fate.

The talented pass rushers plummeted in the 2015 NFL Draft because of marijuana issues.

“Shane is kind of like me. He made a bad choice.” Gregory told NFP. “I wish nothing but the best for him, hope he makes some smarter decisions in the future and I’m hoping he wishes the same upon me.”

But while the humbled Gregory said he deserved what happened to him, the overly confident Ray was defiant.

“I want to show those other teams that they made a huge mistake. … This does nothing but add fuel to the fire,” Ray said. “I will use this as motivation and I hope that I do see every one of those teams twice a year.”

Ray, who had 14.5 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss last year, vowed to demonstrate his ability that had many pegging him as a Top 10 pick last month before his issues, including an April 27 citation for weed possession, caused him to slide to No. 23 overall.

“I will go over and beyond to show (the Broncos) that I am more than capable at dominating at whatever they ask me to do,” he said. “And when I say ‘dominating,’ I mean nothing less than that.”

While the Denver-bound Ray seemed vengeful, Gregory took a more apologetic tone, saying he needed to mature.

“I made a real dumb decision,” Gregory said, “that’s been the most embarrassing part of my life up to this point and I’m just ready to fix it.”

After testing positive for marijuana at the NFL Combine, Gregory fell out of the first round and was the last player remaining in the green room when the Cowboys selected him 60th overall.

Gregory’s Missed Appointments

Magnifying concerns over his character, the Nebraska product was truant from meetings with several NFL clubs.

“I know for a fact it hurt me with a few teams,” Gregory said. “I understood why I wasn’t picked high.”

One meeting Gregory did attend was with the Cowboys a couple of weeks ago. He spent 40 minutes with head coach Jason Garrett, defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and owner Jerry Jones.

Gregory compared his heart-to-heart with Jones to a stern father-son conversation. Dallas has taken chances on several players with a litany of off-the-field problems, including wide receiver Dez Bryant and defensive end Greg Hardy.

Gregory, who said he smoked weed to help cope with anxiety, told reporters he would be open to having a mentor/sponsor, which the Cowboys have used on players in the past.

Unintentionally wearing Cowboys colors — a silver suit and blue tie — on Friday night, he may prove to be a great fit in Dallas. Having recorded just 28 sacks in 2014, the Cowboys ranked 26th in pass defense and are in desperate need of a pass rusher.

“I feel like I could be a piece right there to get us to that next level, get us another championship,” Gregory said. “That’s what makes it exciting.”

Denver, on the other hand, does not have a hole at pass rusher. With DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller, after whom Ray has modeled his game, the Broncos ranked in the top 10 in the NFL last year with 41 sacks.

Rumors, though, circulated that the Ravens were targeting Ray, and the Broncos traded their first-round pick, fifth-round pick, 2016 fifth-round pick, and offensive lineman Manny Ramirez to the Lions to move up five spots to select the explosive 6-3, 245-pound Missouri star.

Injury and Weight Issues

Trading up was somewhat of a surprising move by Denver, considering Ray not only had the marijuana incident but also a toe injury that prevented him from working out at the Combine and had some speculating he would miss much of his rookie NFL season.

Ray, though, said that his doctor told him he did not need surgery. The injury was only keeping him out because he did not have time to properly rehab it due to the hectic schedule of pro days, the Combine and flying to meet teams.

He promised to be healthy enough to play Week 1 against the Ravens.

“My toe’s fine,” Ray said. “I will be ready.”

Like Ray, Gregory had a physical concern that caused him to fall in the draft.

Though a gifted 6-5 pass rusher who had 17.5 sacks and 25.5 tackles for loss the last two years, he was the lightest defensive lineman at the Combine at 235 pounds. Gregory said he currently weighed 239 to 240 pounds and that he needs to get up to 255.

“One of the big things is obviously putting a little bit more mass on me,” he said. “I’m definitely going to get there.”

Ray is going to get to play in Colorado, a state that legalized pot, something that made him the butt of social media jokes.

“Just because I was cited for marijuana possession doesn’t mean I’m this huge smoker or some huge drug addict,” Ray said. “That’s not a worry for me.”

Instead Ray is more concerned with proving himself to the other teams who passed on him before the Broncos selected him at No. 23.

“They’re all circled, you best believe,” he said. “I’ve been blessed with my situation that the Broncos decided to trade up to get me and give me a second opportunity. And I’m going to show them that this was the best decision they could’ve made.”

Follow Jeff on Twitter @JFedotin

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Did the Jets get a steal in Leonard Williams?

CHICAGO—Before stepping to the podium, Leonard Williams audibly exhaled.

Such a reaction was understandable, considering he had slipped to the sixth overall pick, even though most had pegged the 6-5, 302-pounder as the best defensive player — and perhaps the best player overall — in the 2015 NFL Draft.

“It’s like a sigh of relief,”

CHICAGO—Before stepping to the podium, Leonard Williams audibly exhaled.

Such a reaction was understandable, considering he had slipped to the sixth overall pick, even though most had pegged the 6-5, 302-pounder as the best defensive player — and perhaps the best player overall — in the 2015 NFL Draft.

“It’s like a sigh of relief,” Williams said. “I had high expectations for myself, and seeing myself fall was kind of disappointing.”

The Jets didn’t expect him to be available at No. 6 either.

Williams had visited the Jets and was told he’d be one of their main targets if he was there, something they didn’t figure to be the case.

Rumor has it that a shoulder injury caused the defensive lineman, who had 21 sacks and 36.5 tackles for loss during his three years at USC, to slide in the first round.

Williams had surgery following his sophomore season to repair a torn labrum and after workouts he still does extra stabilization exercises to keep his shoulder strong.

After missing spring workouts, however, he returned from injury to have seven sacks and 80 tackles during an impressive junior campaign where he started 13 games.

“I played the whole 2014 season with no problems,” Williams said. “I don’t know why that would have been a factor, so I don’t really believe in that rumor.”

Whether that shoulder rumor led to him falling to the Jets, it meant he landed on a team that had already possessed a strong defense. New York had the sixth-ranked defense last year and added cornerbacks, Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, who both starred for the team previously, during the offseason.

“I’m glad to go into a defense that’s already well-seasoned up front,” Williams said. “They have a great D-line already.”

That line is led by stout defensive ends Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson. In addition to stopping the run, the latter has 16.5 sacks the last two years, a very high total for a 3-4 end.

Following the Jets’ selection of Williams, Wilkerson welcomed him to the club via Instagram.

“That means a lot to me,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to working with those guys.”

Wilkerson, though, could be on his way out. Thee fifth-year player is in the final year of his deal and has skipped voluntary workouts. New York even reportedly listened to trade offers for him prior to the draft.

Williams, who looks very lean in person, is athletic, having run a 4.94 40, and versatile, which allows him play either the three- or five-technique under new head coach Todd Bowles. But he said the Jets told him he would play as a 3-4 defensive end, perhaps making Wilkerson the odd man out.

Bowles, a Bill Parcells disciple, orchestrated the Cardinals’ 3-4 defense last year and likely will not employ four defensive linemen in his base defense.

Williams instantly bonded with his new coach, who he described as a players’ coach, during their visit. Bowles kidded him, saying he would critique his draft attire.

“We were joking around,” Williams said. “I felt comfortable around him.”

The 20-year-old, who has outside interests including ceramics, should also be a good fit in New York as he crosses coasts to plays on the biggest stage.

“I kind of do well being in big cities,” Williams said.

The Big Apple will take to Williams if he can help the Jets bridge the gap in the division, which includes their longtime nemesis and the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots led by Tom Brady.

“I know it’s a big rivalry,” he said. “I’m looking forward to tackling a great quarterback like that. I hope that’s the first sack of my career.”

The Jets could make the going tough for opposing offenses in the AFC East. They currently have three defensive lineman (Richardson, Wilkerson and Williams) who were first-round picks, and none is older than 25.

The issue is that by loading up on D-line, the Jets have neglected their offense, which currently looks like it will be quarterbacked by Geno Smith or Ryan Fitzpatrick and lacks many weapons beside Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker.

New general manager Mike Maccagnan must spend Friday and Saturday improving that part of his team.

He used his Thursday to phone Williams, a call that really surprised the All-Pac 12 player.

It was not only shock for the soon-to-be rookie, but it also provided motivation. He vowed to remember the five teams who passed on him.

“I’m looking forward to proving those people wrong,” Williams said, “and most of all proving the Jets right.”

Follow Jeff on Twitter @JFedotin

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A Chiefs draft lesson: Why GM Scott Pioli was better than you think

Scott Pioli, the former Chiefs general manager, was skewered for his moves while running the team, which went 23-41 during his four years.

Among his biggest gaffes:

  • Hiring one head coach, Todd Haley, he could not get along with and another, Romeo Crennel, who struggled to control the team.
  • Signing Matt Cassel, who is

Scott Pioli, the former Chiefs general manager, was skewered for his moves while running the team, which went 23-41 during his four years.

Among his biggest gaffes:

  • Hiring one head coach, Todd Haley, he could not get along with and another, Romeo Crennel, who struggled to control the team.
  • Signing Matt Cassel, who is better suited as a backup than a starter, to a franchise quarterback worthy deal of six years, $60 million, including $28 million guaranteed.
  • Trading future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez for a second-round pick that would be used on Javier Arenas, an average defensive back.
  • Drafting Tyson Jackson third overall — over players like Brian Orakpo, Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews — in the 2009 NFL Draft.

As time has gone on, however, Pioli’s 2009-12 tenure looks much better.

Three of his draft picks, in particular, have proven to be the backbone for a Chiefs defense that allowed the second fewest points in the league last year.

It starts with the 2011 NFL Draft, where his third-round selections accounted for 27 sacks last season.

With the 70th overall pick, Pioli selected outside linebacker Justin Houston, a move that was considered a gamble at the time. Houston starred at Georgia, but his character was questioned for, among other things, testing positive at the NFL Combine for marijuana.

Houston, though, lost weight and has become a hard worker, providing Kansas City its best edge rusher since Derrick Thomas.

Just 26, Houston already has made three Pro Bowls, including his exemplary 2014 season when he had 22 sacks — a half-sack behind Michael Strahan’s all-time single-season NFL record — and four forced fumbles.

Sixteen picks after Houston, Pioli selected Allen Bailey out of Miami (Fla.) The 3-4 defensive end came into his own last year, starting 14 games and recording five sacks.

“He’s continued to improve,” head coach Andy Reid said. “He was good before, but I think he’s really developed into a pretty fine football player.”

Bailey’s speed, range and quickness made him effective on third down from the get-go, but the 6-3, 288 pounder has added weight and honed his technique to make him a more stout, well-rounded 3-4 end.

As a result the Chiefs, who signed Bailey to a four-year, $25 million contract last season, expect the 26-year-old to anchor the edge of their defensive line for years to come.

“The more he’s played, the better he’s got,” said Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton. “The arrow’s really pointing up on him.”

Bailey’s acquisition also offsets missing on Jackson, who was drafted to play the same position as Bailey, two years earlier. (Jackson now plays for the Falcons, where Pioli is the assistant GM.)

Pioli’s best move may have been his final first-round pick as a Chiefs executive when he drafted nose tackle Dontari Poe with the 11th overall choice in the 2012 NFL Draft.

Poe may be the best nose in the NFL. He’s that good.

Poe crushed it at the 2012 Combine, running the 40 in 4.98 seconds despite being the fifth heaviest defensive lineman to weigh in at the Combine since 2000. He also bench pressed 44 reps of 225 pounds.

Despite those eye-popping numbers, Poe was considered a workout wonder, and the pick was deemed a question mark. His play on the field at Memphis came nowhere close to reflecting those physical gifts. He had just five sacks over three years, including one as a senior, while playing against weak competition in Conference USA.

Pundits thought that indicated a lack of motor and of real football talent.

Pioli, however, rolled the dice and ended up with a player that not only has a motor, but it’s revved for nearly every play.

Heading into Week 14 of the 2013 season, for example, Poe was in the lineup for 95 percent of Kansas City’s defensive plays, which amounted to 804 snaps and was 85 more than any other NFL defensive tackle.

“It’s a great luxury because very seldom do you have a man as big as he that doesn’t come out,” Sutton said. “He’s a very talented guy.”

Indeed Poe plays so many downs because of his versatility — not just because of his stamina. The mammoth space eater is stout against interior running plays but has chased down screen passes near the sideline.

On obvious passing downs, the 346-pounder can collapse the pocket. The three-time Pro Bowler has 10.5 sacks the last two seasons.

The acquisitions of Poe, Bailey and Houston show that while the Chiefs organization may be in better shape with Reid and John Dorsey running the show, some of Pioli’s moves helped mold the Chiefs defense into one of the league’s best.

Follow Jeff on Twitter @JFedotin

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Is 2015 the best running back draft in years?

After becoming devalued in the new pass-happy NFL era, the running back position has become a premium asset this offseason.

DeMarco Murray and LeSean McCoy both signed five-year deals for $40 million or more, and the 2015 draft is loaded at running back.

Most prognosticators believe that this NFL draft will have at least one

After becoming devalued in the new pass-happy NFL era, the running back position has become a premium asset this offseason.

DeMarco Murray and LeSean McCoy both signed five-year deals for $40 million or more, and the 2015 draft is loaded at running back.

Most prognosticators believe that this NFL draft will have at least one running back selected in the first round for the first time in two years.

Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, Tevin Coleman, Jay Ajayi, Duke Johnson, Ameer Abdullah, T.J. Yeldon and Jeremy Langford head a deep group that could contribute from Day One. Before a knee injury sidelined Gurley, many thought the Georgia runner was the most talented back since Adrian Peterson.

Only time will tell if the experts are correct in predicting the quality of this year’s crop, but here’s a look at what the 2015-ers are up against from the last five RB drafts:

 

2010 — 13 RBs drafted

1st round

C.J. Spiller, drafted 9th overall by the Bills, rushed for 1,244 yards in 2012, but a broken collarbone shortened the explosive player’s 2014 campaign.

Ryan Mathews, drafted 12th overall by the Chargers, has started 53 games and averaged 4.4 yards per carry, but he can’t shake the injury bug.

Jahvid Best, drafted 30th overall by the Lions, played in just 22 games before concussions ended his career.

2nd round

Dexter McCluster, drafted 36th overall by the Chiefs, was a running back/receiver and never exemplary at either, though he did make the Pro Bowl as special teamer in 2013.

Toby Gerhart, drafted 51st overall by the Vikings, served as Adrian Peterson’s backup in Minnesota and then struggled when given an opportunity for more with Jacksonville.

Ben Tate, drafted 58th overall by the Texans, broke his ankle as a rookie, allowing Arian Foster to take his spot. He ran for 942 yards the next year for Houston but has been on three different teams since.

Montario Hardesty, drafted 59th overall by the Browns, was plagued by injuries and last played in a regular season contest in 2012.

Sleepers

Drafted by the Packers (193rd overall, 6th round), James Starks rushed for 316 yards in the 2010 postseason during Green Bay’s Super Bowl run.

Grade

D: This class not only lacked depth, but the first seven backs selected are no longer with their original team.

 

2011 — 24 RBs drafted

1st round

Mark Ingram, drafted 28th overall by the Saints, had his best year in 2014, rushing for 964 yards and nine touchdowns after battling myriad injuries.

2nd round

Ryan Williams, drafted 38th overall by the Cardinals, has been plagued by injuries, including rupturing a patella tendon before taking a regular season snap and a shoulder injury that ended his second season.

Shane Vereen, drafted 56th overall by the Patriots, emerged as an effective runner, receiver and blocker especially on third downs.

Mikel Leshoure, drafted 57th overall by the Lions, tore his Achilles tendon before playing a regular season down for Detroit and did not play for a team during the 2014 regular season.

Daniel Thomas, drafted 62nd overall by the Dolphins, has averaged under 3.9 yards per carry in each of his four seasons.

Sleepers

Drafted by the Cowboys (71st overall, 3rd round), DeMarco Murray led the NFL with 1,845 rushing yards in 2014.

Drafted by the Patriots (73rd overall, 3rd round), Stevan Ridley rushed for 1,263 yards in 2012 before fumbling issues put him in Bill Belichick’s doghouse.

Drafted by the Redskins (105th overall, 4th round), Roy Helu surpassed 100 rushing yards in three consecutive weeks as a rookie.

Drafted by the 49ers (115th overall, 4th round), Kendall Hunter averaged 4.6 yards per carry for his career before tearing his ACL in last year’s training camp.

Drafted by the Jets (126th overall, 4th round), Bilal Powell started 11 games while rushing for 697 yards in 2013.

Drafted by the Falcons (145th overall, 5th round), Jacquizz Rodgers, a shifty third-down back, has scored 10 career touchdowns.

Grade

C+: Murray can’t redeem a class whose early-round picks had their careers hampered by injuries and that lacks many full-time starters.

 

2012 — 19 RBs drafted

1st round

Trent Richardson, drafted 3rd overall by the Browns, has become one of the NFL’s biggest draft busts of late.

Doug Martin, drafted 31st overall by the Buccaneers, rushed for 1,454 yards as a rookie before suffering a shoulder injury and then falling out of favor with the Tampa Bay coaching staff.

David Wilson, drafted 32nd overall by the Giants, retired prior to the 2014 season because of neck injuries.

2nd round

Isaiah Pead, drafted 50th overall by the Rams, carried the ball a total of just 17 times during his three years in St. Louis.

LaMichael James, drafted 61st overall by the 49ers, was relegated to the Dolphins’ practice squad before joining their active roster late in the 2014 season.

Sleepers

Drafted by the Broncos (67th overall, 3rd round), Ronnie Hillman started four games for Denver last year before the emergence of C.J. Anderson.

Drafted by the Ravens (84th overall, 3rd round), Bernard Pierce rushed for 1,334 yards in three years with Baltimore before a recent DUI arrest led to his release.

Drafted by the Redskins (173rd overall, 6th round), Alfred Morris has surpassed 1,000 rushing yards, including 1,613 during his rookie season, and 4.0 yards per carry each year.

Drafted by the Bengals (191st overall, 6th round), Dan Herron started all three playoff games for the Indianapolis Colts last season.

Drafted by the Rams (252nd overall, 7th round), Daryl Richardson rushed for 475 yards as a rookie.

Grade

D+: A 6th rounder — Morris — is the best of a lot that included major busts in the early rounds.

 

2013 — 23 RBs drafted

1st round

None Selected

2nd round

Giovani Bernard, drafted 37th overall by the Bengals, amassed 1,209 yards from scrimmage during his rookie year while making a slew of highlight plays.

Le’Veon Bell, drafted 48th overall by the Steelers, was initially slowed by knee and foot injuries as a rookie before emerging as one of the NFL’s best weapons in his second season.

Montee Ball, drafted 58th overall by the Broncos, never developed into more than a part-time player as he struggled with injuries and fumbling issues.

Eddie Lacy, drafted 61st overall by the Packers, has become the best back Aaron Rodgers ever played with.

Christine Michael, drafted 62nd overall by the Seahawks, has averaged 4.9 yards per carry during his career, though Marshawn Lynch’s backup only has 52 career rushes.

Sleepers

Drafted by the Chiefs (96th overall, 3rd round), Knile Davis has proven to be a nice complement to the smaller, speedier Jamaal Charles.

Drafted by the Jaguars (135th overall, 5th round), Denard Robinson, the former college quarterback, twice surpassed 100 rushing yards as he grew into his new position during his second season.

Drafted by the Rams (160th overall, 5th round), Zac Stacy started 12 games his rookie year before falling out of favor in his second season.

Drafted by the Raiders (181st overall, 6th round), Latavius Murray surpassed 75 rushing yards three times during the last five games of the 2014 season.

Drafted by the Cardinals (187th overall, 6th round), Andre Ellington has produced 2,078 yards from scrimmage during his two-year career.

Drafted by the Lions (199th overall, 7th round), Theo Riddick caught four touchdowns last year and likely will take on a bigger role after Detroit lost Reggie Bush.

Grade

A-: The second round featured a star back in Bell and two very good ones in Lacy and Bernard. The later rounds unearthed several part-time or full-time starters, which could’ve been even better had 4th rounders Johnathan Franklin and Marcus Lattimore not retired early.

 

2014 — 20 RBs drafted

1st round

None selected

2nd round

Bishop Sankey, drafted 54th overall by the Titans, disappointed as rookie, averaging only 3.7 yards per carry and never registering more than 61 yards in a game. He had as many touchdowns as fumbles.

Jeremy Hill, drafted 55th overall by the Bengals, shined as the star of the class, averaging 5.1 yards per carry and stealing the starting job from Giovani Bernard.

Carlos Hyde, drafted 57th overall by the 49ers, averaged 4.0 yards per carry last year and is poised to assume the starting role in 2015 with Frank Gore off to Philadelphia.

Sleepers

Drafted by the Rams (75th overall, 3rd round), Tre Mason came on strong in the latter part of the season as St. Louis’ main back after not playing in the first four games.

Drafted by the Browns (94th overall, 3rd round), Terrance West started six games for Cleveland.

Drafted by the Vikings (96th overall, 3rd round), Jerick McKinnon averaged 4.8 yards per carry and could become Minnesota’s main back if it parts ways with Adrian Peterson.

Grade

B: This class could produce as many as six starters on 2015 rosters, but Hill is the only Pro Bowl-level talent.

Follow Jeff on Twitter @JFedotin

 

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How ‘The U’ shaped the Colts’ offseason

After the Texans released him, wide receiver Andre Johnson told the Colts’ website that the ensuing process felt like “being recruited all over again.”

It turns out that his NFL courtship had the same result as his collegiate one.

Johnson signed with the team of Chuck Pagano, the same person who recruited him to the

After the Texans released him, wide receiver Andre Johnson told the Colts’ website that the ensuing process felt like “being recruited all over again.”

It turns out that his NFL courtship had the same result as his collegiate one.

Johnson signed with the team of Chuck Pagano, the same person who recruited him to the University of Miami.

The Colts’ ties to “The U” extend beyond head coach Pagano, who coached defensive backs and special teams at Miami from 1995 to 2000 and served as a graduate assistant in 1986, and Johnson, who played for the Hurricanes from 2000 to 2002.

“We have a lot of history,” Johnson told Colts.com. “I just felt so comfortable.”

That history includes Colts associate head coach Rob Chudzinski, the Miami offensive coordinator from 2001 to 2003 and the school’s tight end coach and graduate assistant prior to that.

As soon as the Texans released Johnson, Frank Gore, who played at Miami from 2002 to 2004, called his former college teammate, asking where the receiver was going to sign.

The duo then flew to Indianapolis on Colts owner Jim Irsay’s team plane.

Gore signed with the Colts first — for three years and $12 million — while Johnson mulled over his decision.

As part of his research into the team that coveted him, Johnson spoke to Reggie Wayne, who played 14 years for the Colts before getting released this offseason following an injury-plagued year.

Despite being jettisoned by the team, Wayne praised the organization. Perhaps in part due to Wayne’s advice, Johnson signed with the Colts for three years and $21 million.

It will mark the second time Johnson has replaced Wayne, who played for Miami from 1997 to 2000. His senior season — when he posted 755 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns — coincided with the freshman season of Johnson, who would go on to record 1,831 yards and 20 touchdowns over three years.

Prior to signing with the Colts, Johnson also spoke to running back Edgerrin James. The Colts’ all-time leading rusher played at Miami from 1996 to 1998.

Gore, one of James’ successors at the U, has rushed for 11,073 yards in 10 years with the 49ers, a comparable number to James, who rushed for 12,246 yards, including 9,226 yards during his seven years with Indianapolis.

Upon seeing James’ Colts jersey at his new team’s facility, Gore flashed The U sign with his hands.

Though Gore is proud of his time in Miami, another college — Stanford — played a major role in his signing with Indianapolis.

Gore thrived in San Francisco, playing behind the run-first, power football design of head coach Jim Harbaugh, who coached Stanford from 2007 to 2010, and 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman, Stanford’s tight ends/offensive tackle coach from 2009 to 2010.

Current Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, the Stanford wide receivers coach in 2010 and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach in 2011 to 2012, worked with both.

“That’s why I came here,” Gore said.

Despite the obvious Miami and Stanford connections, Gore nearly signed with Philadelphia, where most experts had him going.

“It was tough, man,” Gore said, “because they really wanted me.”

Indianapolis, though, really needs Gore. Following their failed Trent Richardson acquisition, the Colts averaged just 3.9 rushing yards per carry to rank 25th in the NFL last year.

The Colts’ lack of a bell cow back not only prevented Hamilton from capably running that same punishing Stanford offense, it also put more pressure on quarterback Andrew Luck, who threw for 16 interceptions, seven more than he did in 2013.

Luck will now have the benefit of throwing to a deep crop of wide receivers, including Johnson, T.Y. Hilton, Hakeem Nicks, Donte Moncrief and Duron Carter.

The 33-year-old Johnson is not as explosive as he once was. Last year he failed to post 1,000 receiving yards for the first time in his career when he played at least 14 games. He also averaged just 11 yards per catch.

He, however, remains an effective possession receiver who can go underneath and open up the deeper routes for the speedy Hilton and Moncrief.

How much gas Gore has left in the tank is up for debate. He surpassed 1,000 rushing yards for the fourth consecutive season last year, but before the 2015 regular season, he will turn 32, an age well past when most NFL running backs have washed up.

But Gore, a five-time Pro Bowler who overcame tearing his ACL in back-to-back seasons at Miami, is used to defying the odds.

If he matches his production with San Francisco, Indianapolis will go a long way toward shoring up its running game, one of its major weaknesses from last year.

Another issue was a porous run defense that gave up 4.3 yards per carry, including allowing third-string Patriots back Jonas Gray to rush for 201 yards and four touchdowns during New England’s 42-20 victory in November.

The Patriots have ended the Colts’ postseason the last two years. Perhaps Indianapolis, which has advanced further in the playoffs in each of the last three successive seasons, can narrow the gap between the teams even more by signing defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, who New England released this month.

A college teammate of Gore and Johnson’s, Wilfork played for the Hurricanes from 2001 to 2003.

Whether or not they sign Wilfork, the Colts hope their new members from the Sunshine State can take them to the promised land.

Follow Jeff on Twitter @JFedotin

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Dear NFL: Let the players have fun in the end zone

Deion Sanders was there as part of his NFL Network duties. And the Sept. 18 game took place in Atlanta, where “Primetime” began his career.

So after returning a punt 62 yards to break Sanders’ all-time return record, Devin Hester mimicked the Hall of Famer by high-stepping the last 10 yards into the end zone.

Deion Sanders was there as part of his NFL Network duties. And the Sept. 18 game took place in Atlanta, where “Primetime” began his career.

So after returning a punt 62 yards to break Sanders’ all-time return record, Devin Hester mimicked the Hall of Famer by high-stepping the last 10 yards into the end zone.

But showing no sense for the moment or that the current Falcons returner was paying homage to the former Falcons great, officials gave Hester a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.

“It is unfortunate that the NFL won’t allow for that kind of celebration,” said Patrick Mannelly, Hester’s special teams teammate from 2006 to 2013. “I mean it’s an NFL record.”

With its stringent rules regarding touchdown celebrations, the NFL is once again living down to its notorious nickname — the “No Fun League.”

“We’re out there having fun,” said Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. “If you get in the end zone, you deserve to celebrate. It’s what we work for. So, once we get in there, I love to see guys just have fun, enjoy themselves, be a kid again.”

Though the NFL likely won’t relax its rules to allow for more frivolity, the competition committee would have to submit such proposals to NFL executives at the league’s annual meeting in Phoenix late March.

The Unsportsmanlike Conduct Rule

Currently, in Rule 12, Section 3 of the by-laws, the NFL lumps in such seemingly innocuous celebrations with other prohibited acts, including punching an opponent or making unnecessary physical contact with a referee, which results in a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty.

 

Section 3 Unsportsmanlike Conduct

Article 1: Prohibited Acts. There shall be no unsportsmanlike conduct. This applies to any act which is contrary to the generally understood principles of sportsmanship. Such acts specifically include, among others:

(a)  Throwing a punch, or a forearm, or kicking at an opponent, even though no contact is made.

(b)  Using abusive, threatening, or insulting language or gestures to opponents, teammates, officials, or representatives of the League.

(c)  Using baiting or taunting acts or words that engender ill will between teams.

(d)  Prolonged or excessive celebrations or demonstrations by an individual player. Players are prohibited from engaging in any celebrations or demonstrations while on the ground. A celebration or demonstration shall be deemed excessive or prolonged if a player continues to celebrate or demonstrate after a warning from an official.

(e)  Two or more players engaging in prolonged, excessive, premeditated, or choreographed celebrations or demonstrations.

(f)  Possession or use of foreign or extraneous object(s) that are not part of the uniform during the game on the field or the sideline, or using the ball as a prop.

(g)  Unnecessary physical contact with a game official.

(h)  Removal of his helmet by a player in the field of play or the end zone during a celebration or demonstration, or during a confrontation with a game official or any other player.

Note 3: Violations of (b) will be penalized if any of the acts are committed directly at an opponent. These acts include, but are not limited to: sack dances; home run swing; incredible hulk; spiking the ball; spinning the ball; throwing or shoving the ball; pointing; pointing the ball; verbal taunting; military salute; standing over an opponent (prolonged and with provocation); or dancing.

 

Who do football players hurt with these excessive celebrations that result in unsportsmanlike penalties?

Moreover, the semantics of the rule can make it difficult to interpret and legislate. Hester’s touchdown was excessive, but the Lambeau Leap is not?

The Husain Abdullah Penalty

Perhaps the most glaring screw-up in penalizing for excessive celebration occurred during the late September Monday Night Football contest between the Chiefs and Patriots.

After a Pick-6 against New England quarterback Tom Brady, Chiefs safety Husain Abdullah kneeled in the end zone in Islamic prayer and received a 15-yard penalty because he was “on the ground,” an activity outlawed in part D of Section 3, Article 1.

“That was just an errant call in my mind. Heck, a guy going to his knees and praying?” Abdullah’s teammate, Travis Kelce told NFP. “You can’t really say anything bad about that. It shouldn’t have been a flag.”

Kelce was right. The NFL admitted it messed up the call because, though Abdullah was going to the ground, it was part of a religious expression — no different than Tebowing.

Kelce, the dynamic Chiefs tight end entering his third year, is known for his touchdown celebrations, including The Nae Nae, The Shmoney Dance, The Bow and Arrow and even one that honors WWE wrestler Ric Flair.

“I do have some fun when I do get in the end zone,” Kelce said. “That’s for sure.”

One of the NFL’s most prolific celebrators is no fan of the restrictions.

“I really don’t agree with half of them,” Kelce said. “You got to abide by ’em … whether you like them or you don’t.”

Prior to Kelce, several players engaged in memorable celebrations that would be penalized today.

Chad Johnson performed CPR on a football and used an end zone pylon as a putter. Steve Smith pantomimed rowing a boat.

“When I was younger, I was big fan of Ochocinco and T.O. and Steve Smith and all the guys,” said Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans.

Evans, who scored 12 touchdowns during his rookie year, wishes he could celebrate in a way that reflects on his impressive prep basketball career, which led to numerous scholarship offers from Division-I schools.

“I wanna be able to dunk the ball,” Evans said.

Before the 2014 season, however, the NFL said dunking over the crossbar — something Saints wide receiver Jimmy Graham did regularly — would result in the 15-yard penalty.

This change to the rule by the NFL competition committee, though, made some sense. In previous instances dunking over the goalpost bent it, causing a delay in the game while it was reset.

The Odell Beckham Jr. Penalty

Making less sense is what happened to Beckham.

The rookie receiver was penalized 15 yards after he spun the ball and danced behind it following a first-quarter touchdown — his 10th score of the season — against the Rams in late December.

“I don’t think spinning the ball in front of myself is taunting anybody,” Beckham said. “That wasn’t directed to anybody. I spun the ball in front of me. I don’t think it was even past my feet.

“I didn’t quite understand the penalty.”

And neither do I.

Follow Jeff on Twitter @JFedotin

 

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Why does Marshawn Lynch hate speaking to the media?

I’m just here so I won’t get fined.

Nothing drew more attention during the Super Bowl week media sessions than that declaration, which Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch repeated 29 times during his obligatory press conference.

Why does Lynch go to such efforts to avoid answering questions from the media?

“I don’t think he likes

I’m just here so I won’t get fined.

Nothing drew more attention during the Super Bowl week media sessions than that declaration, which Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch repeated 29 times during his obligatory press conference.

Why does Lynch go to such efforts to avoid answering questions from the media?

“I don’t think he likes to deal with the phoniness,” Michael Robinson, Lynch’s former teammate with the Seahawks, told NFP.

During their four-plus years together with Seattle, Robinson became so close to Lynch that he served as his unofficial spokesman and still refers to him as a “brother.”

Robinson made the point that Lynch feels the media too often dwells on negative stories and also that he feels his play on the field should speak for itself and not require further explanation.

If someone did want to glean more from Lynch about him as a person and player, Robinson said the best tactic is to go to one of Lynch’s community service events — especially those involving the Fam 1st Family Foundation — about which the running back is passionate.

Show real interest in that, and he would open up.

“If more media would come into his world during the offseason — and not only when they’re looking for a DUI story or something crazy like that,” Robinson said, “they’d get a lot more out of him.”

Instead, Lynch’s standoffish dealings with the media stand out drastically from those of the other most recognizable Seahawks — very polished quarterback Russell Wilson and very loquacious cornerback Richard Sherman.

Lynch conducts himself much differently.

“He marches by the beat of his own drum,” Robinson said.

Lynch’s bizarre behavior with the media reached its apex during the week of Super Bowl XLIX. His “I’m just here so I won’t get fined” comment became embedded in pop culture with everyone from Katy Perry to Tiger Woods facetiously repeating it in public.

Such sideshows may have been prevented if Robinson, his backfield mate who similarly overcame a rough upbringing, was still on the team.

Robinson, who last played for the Seahawks during their Super Bowl-winning 2013 season and now works for NFL Media, had his locker next to Lynch.

“I was able to diffuse some situations just because I understood where he was coming from, and we were able to get some quotes out of him during the week,” Robinson said. “He knows that I understand him. There were times where they’re asking questions, and I could tell it’s a little awkward moment and I would jump in and answer it.”

Some have theorized that the awkward open locker room sessions and press conferences could be a result of a social anxiety disorder, something that plagues more athletes than is commonly depicted. (Think Ricky Williams delivering interviews with his helmet on during his early days with the Saints.)

But Robinson insisted that Lynch does not suffer from an anxiety disorder.

“That’s not Marshawn,” he said. “If you go back to his Buffalo days before people viewed him in the light of ‘this great running back,’ he did interviews all the time.”

Riding that great running back, the Seahawks returned to the Super Bowl this season but lost on an infamous goal-line play.

Instead of running the ball to Lynch, who had rushed for 102 yards, Seattle attempted to throw a slant pass to wide receiver Ricardo Lockette, which Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler picked off.

Some called it the worst the play-call in NFL history. Other conspiracy theorists even suggested that Seahawks coach Pete Carroll wanted to make the mediagenic Wilson the hero rather than the enigmatic Lynch.

Is Lynch peeved that he did not receive that last carry? Does he hold a grudge?

“I have not specifically asked him about the play — and if I did — I probably wouldn’t tell you anyway,” Robinson said, laughing. “But again, I know where this guy’s from. I’m from a similar area. You talk about a guy who’s dealt with best friends dying, best friends being locked up for life, fathers not being around. I mean real life stuff, heavy. Not winning football games is kind of down on the list — as opposed to being at the top.”

Though Lynch keeps the significance of football in proper perspective, it’s hard to imagine the Seahawks returning to the NFL’s most important stage next year without him.

But with just one year at $7 million left on his deal, rumors have swirled that he might hold out — or even retire.

Lynch takes a pounding. His violent style is so aggressive that it has been dubbed “Beast Mode.”

And many have suggested that, even though the 28 year old is coming off a season in which he ran for 1,306 yards and 13 touchdowns, he won’t subject himself to another year of such physical punishment.

Robinson hopes and believes he will continue playing.

“If I was a betting man — which I’m not,” he said, “I would bet on him playing next year for Seattle.”

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JFedotin

Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills. During his football playing days at Pembroke Hill (Mo.) School, Fedotin was known for his bad knees and even worse blocking.

 

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What if the Seahawks had kept Golden Tate?

Approached at his locker late in December, former Seahawks wide receiver Golden Tate took the high road.

“I’m very happy and thankful with the decision I made to come be a Lion,” Tate told NFP. “I’m not having any regrets or looking back.”

The Seahawks, though, may regret not re-upping Tate, who

Approached at his locker late in December, former Seahawks wide receiver Golden Tate took the high road.

“I’m very happy and thankful with the decision I made to come be a Lion,” Tate told NFP. “I’m not having any regrets or looking back.”

The Seahawks, though, may regret not re-upping Tate, who signed with the Lions for five years and $31 million during the 2014 offseason.

A major reason the Seahawks did not match that was because they had signed wide receiver Percy Harvin to a five-year, $64.2 million contract extension on March 13, 2013 after acquiring him from the Vikings.

Seattle lost Super Bowl XLIX because of a poor play call when it had the ball at the New England one-yard-line at the end of the game. Seattle lost the game because it allowed Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to throw for 328 yards and four touchdowns.

But if Tate was still on the team, perhaps quarterback Russell Wilson throws for more than 247 yards, including just 84 in the first half. Perhaps the Seahawks score more than 24 points. Perhaps Richardo Lockette, the intended receiver on the goal-line interception, is on the bench, and Tate makes the touchdown grab.

Seattle’s biggest coaching gaffe — and one of the poorer play calls of all time — was having Wilson throw a slant pass from the one instead of giving the ball to Marshawn Lynch.

But Seattle’s biggest personnel gaffe was signing Harvin to an extension instead of Tate.

Harvin’s presence reportedly divided the locker room, forcing Seattle to trade him to the Jets during Week 7 of this year. He played in just six regular-season games over the course of two seasons for the Seahawks.

Without Harvin or Tate, the Seahawks were left with a major void at receiver. During the regular season, Seattle’s leading receiver, Doug Baldwin, ranked 42nd in the league in yardage (825 yards) and receptions (66).

Though he played in a more wide-open offense with the Lions than Baldwin did with the Seahawks, Tate finished seventh in the NFL in yards (1,331) and sixth in catches (99).

And that’s not just a byproduct of lining up opposite Calvin Johnson. Megatron, who had fewer catches (71) and yards (1,077) than Tate, missed three games this year with an ankle injury.

“(Tate has) certainly been able to add some spark,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell told NFP in December, “in particular when Calvin was hurt.”

Whether or not Johnson was in the lineup, the Lions moved Tate all over the formation, including in the left and right slot and as the outside receiver.

All season long he demonstrated his deft blocking skills, competitiveness, ball skills and a catch radius that belies his 5-11 height.

Tate set career highs in yards, receptions and touchdowns — far exceeding his production with the Seahawks.

But he did not exceed the Lions’ expectations for him.

“We knew what we were getting in terms of a talented individual,” Caldwell said. “We knew exactly what he was capable of doing, even though his first few years in the league, maybe perhaps he didn’t catch the ball as much as he’s caught it for us. We certainly knew he had the potential to be exactly who he is.”

Caldwell was aware of that potential when Tate entered the league. While serving as head coach of the Colts, Caldwell worked under general manager Bill Polian, whose son, Brian, was the special teams coordinator at Notre Dame.

As a result, Bill Polian visited Notre Dame even more frequently than other college venues and scouted Fighting Irish receiver Golden Tate very extensively.

“He was probably one of the guys I heard more about as a collegiate player than anyone,” Caldwell said.

Tate’s former team, the Seahawks, could target a wide receiver in the 2015 Draft.

They ranked 27th in the league in passing yardage, and their No. 2 wide receiver, Jermaine Kearse, had just 38 catches for 537 yards and a touchdown, though he did make a fantastic juggling catch to put the ball at the New England one-yard-line at the end of Super Bowl XLIX.

Chris Matthews, who didn’t have a catch in his career before the Super Bowl, had four for 109 yards on the biggest stage.

Last year the Seahawks selected Paul Richardson in the second round, but the 175-pound target had just 29 catches for 271 yards before tearing his ACL during the divisional playoff game against the Panthers. Kevin Norwood, who was selected in the fourth round of the 2014 Draft, had nine catches for 102 yards on the season.

The player, whose production they were trying to replace, remains content with how his career is unfolding in Detroit.

“I was just happy I was given the chance to become the player that I kind of always envisioned,” Tate said.

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JFedotin

Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills. During his football playing days at Pembroke Hill (Mo.) School, Fedotin was known for his bad knees and even worse blocking.

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Why Dave Toub deserves a head coaching job

After the Chiefs ended their season by defeating the Chargers 19-7, Chiefs punter Dustin Colquitt approached his special teams coordinator, Dave Toub.

“Don’t be going anywhere on me,” Colquitt told him.

His concern was understandable. Toub, who orchestrated the Bears’ record-breaking special teams and turned one of the worst special teams units

After the Chiefs ended their season by defeating the Chargers 19-7, Chiefs punter Dustin Colquitt approached his special teams coordinator, Dave Toub.

“Don’t be going anywhere on me,” Colquitt told him.

His concern was understandable. Toub, who orchestrated the Bears’ record-breaking special teams and turned one of the worst special teams units into one of the best with the Chiefs, should be a desirable head coaching candidate.

“He would be phenomenal,” said Chiefs head coach Andy Reid.

With almost all of the head coaching vacancies filled, however, his ascendance to that position seems very unlikely this year.

Rumors floated that the Bears were going to hire Chiefs director of player personnel Chris Ballard, a scout with connections to both Chicago and Kansas City, as general manager and that Ballard would choose Toub as head coach. The Bears ended up hiring Ryan Pace as GM, who subsequently picked John Fox.

A likely reason Toub, 52, was not more seriously considered for other openings is that a special teams coordinator is not perceived to be as significant a position or as adequate a preparation as offensive or defensive coordinator.

But John Harbaugh, one of the NFL’s best head coaches, served as an NFL special teams coordinator for nine years (and defensive backs coach for just one) before landing in Baltimore.

From 2001-03 Toub coached special teams under Harbaugh with Reid’s Eagles, and Reid made sure to bring Toub along when he came to Kansas City.

And Toub’s experience goes beyond special teams. Like with Harbaugh, while with the Eagles, he had defensive duties — serving as assistant defensive line coach.

Drafted in the ninth round of the 1986 NFL Draft by Philadelphia, the former offensive lineman coached defensive line at Missouri from 1989-2000 while also serving as a strength coach there and at UTEP.

After special teams practices — traditionally shorter than those of the rest of the team —Toub would carefully observe the other positions groups on the Bears.

“He spent his time wisely, learning the rest of the game and trying to learn as much as he could outside of special teams,” said Patrick Mannelly, the Bears’ long snapper under Toub from 2004-12.

But a special teams coordinator — in and of itself — actually provides unique training to run a team. They have to deal with more players and personalities than any other assistant. And because of the constant roster churn, they have to regularly deal with the position coaches and the pro personnel department.

“They make great head coaches because they’re coaching 44 guys pretty much on special teams,” Colquitt said, “so they have everybody’s ear.”

Colquitt and the rest of the Chiefs special teams experienced an immediate upgrade under Toub.

• In 2012, the year before Toub came to Kansas City, the Chiefs had no punt or kickoff returns for touchdowns — while allowing two — and ranked 24th in average kick return and next to last in kickoff return yardage allowed.

• In 2013 Toub came aboard and inserted Dexter McCluster as punt returner. As part of his only Pro Bowl season, McCluster returned two punts for touchdowns and tied or set new franchise records for punt return yards and punt return touchdowns in a season.

Led by new kickoff returner Quintin Demps, the Chiefs also had two kickoff returns for touchdowns and ranked first in kickoff return average.

• In 2014 McCluster and Demps were signed away as free agents, and Toub had to use two different players — De’Anthony Thomas on punts and Knile Davis on kicks — as the main returners.

Despite the roster turnover, the Chiefs ranked first in both kickoff and punt return yardage while scoring on a punt and a kickoff and allowing no touchdowns.

An obvious hire in Kansas City after his exemplary work in Chicago, Toub guided five different Bears players to eight Pro Bowl berths, including Johnny Knox (2009), Brendon Ayanbadejo (2006-07), Robbie Gould (2006), Corey Graham (2011) and — most notably — Devin Hester’s three selections (2006-07 and 2010).

During Toub’s tenure, Chicago had an NFL-high 22 kick return touchdowns compiled by six different players, and he helped Hester develop into the NFL’s all-time leader in kick return touchdowns by adeptly breaking down the other teams’ coverage unit.

For example, because the Vikings typically covered the whole field, keeping everyone wide, Toub would instruct Hester to return it up the gut against Minnesota.

“He knows how to get the best out of his players,” Mannelly said.

His football acumen was at the root of one of this year’s best plays. During a punt return against the Seahawks, Tavon Austin set up on the left like he would catch the sailing punt, and his Rams blockers drifted to that side. But the punt actually went to the right, and Stedman Bailey ran it back 90 yards for the touchdown.

That copied Toub’s design from a 2011 game against the Packers. Tim Masthay’s punts regularly went to the left. Knowing Hester would be the focal point of the Packers coverage unit, Toub had Hester on the other side and feign catching a punt while Knox lined up on the left. Uncovered, Knox caught the punt and returned it for a touchdown, though a dubious holding penalty nullified the play.

“Dave Toub’s schemes were exceptional,” Mannelly said

A gifted coach, perhaps Toub can follow the footsteps of another bright mind — his former boss and current Ravens head coach — and guide his own team.

“Put him in that John Harbaugh category,” Reid said. “Dave would be very good.”

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JFedotin

Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills. During his football playing days at Pembroke Hill (Mo.) School, Fedotin was known for his bad knees and even worse blocking.

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Why the Bears’ future is bleak

Pick your favorite lowlight from the Bears’ dysfunctional and disappointing 2014 season:

• They became the first team since the 1923 Rochester Jeffersons to allow 50 or more points in back-to-back weeks.

• They scored a total of 42 first-half points during an eight-week stretch.

• They became a soap opera

Pick your favorite lowlight from the Bears’ dysfunctional and disappointing 2014 season:

• They became the first team since the 1923 Rochester Jeffersons to allow 50 or more points in back-to-back weeks.

• They scored a total of 42 first-half points during an eight-week stretch.

• They became a soap opera when offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer leaked the offense’s problems with Jay Cutler to NFL Media and then tearfully apologized to the team.

• They attempted a fake punt against the Saints but only had 10 players on the field and in an illegal formation. (New Orleans declined the penalty after the Bears failed to convert.)

Because the 2014 season featured these mistakes and many others, Chicago fired head coach Marc Trestman.

But no matter who replaces Trestman, the Bears may be years away from fielding a quality team.

Of the limited talent on the roster, most are past their prime.

The root of the problem began in the latter years of the defense-centric Lovie Smith era. Realizing the stars of the team’s backbone — Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Julius Peppers and Charles Tillman — were aging, the Bears knew their defense would need a complete overhaul.

So they focused on assembling a potent offense that would make them competitive while the defense underwent a total rebuild.

And the centerpiece of that offense would be quarterback Jay Cutler.

The burden of Cutler

Cutler’s tenure has proven to be disastrous. He has one playoff win, and that came against a 7-9 Seahawks team.

The highest paid offensive player in the NFL ($22.5 million) this season, he led all quarterbacks in turnovers.

Cutler threw 18 interceptions, including one to Dolphins safety Reshad Jones during Miami’s 27-14 victory.

“He was looking where he threw the ball,” Jones said. “He was always looking at his receivers and never looking off.”

That’s a mistake a rookie should make — not someone with nine years of NFL experience. Similarly, he struggled with the basic quarterback task of reading defenses — particularly zone schemes — this year.

After studying film of Chicago, Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis noticed that creating pre-snap confusion was key to stopping the Bears offense.

Jay CutlerICONCutler has won just one playoff game in nine seasons.

“Don’t tell them what (defense) you’re in,” Lewis said after his Saints defeated the Bears 31-15 on Monday Night Football. “Make them figure it out at the last minute. There was a lot of success doing that.”

It’s one thing to be bad and inexpensive. It’s catastrophic to be awful and taking up a lot of salary cap space.

Cutler is due $15.5 million in base salary, which would create a $19.5 million cap hit, making it impossible to just release him.

So if the Bears want to get rid of Cutler, they are left with two undesirable options. They can a) either trade him before March, suffer only a $4 million cap hit and receive almost nothing in return because the other team absorbs much of the cost or b) convert the guaranteed base salary into a costly signing bonus to make the contract less onerous for the trading partner and consequently receive a better draft pick.

So even if the Bears move Cutler, his contract may continue to hinder them in 2015.

An overrated offense

The offensive issues go beyond Cutler. There is a misconception that the Bears are loaded with weapons at the skill positions.

Those pieces, however, are flawed. Matt Forte is a great player. During the 2014 season, he set the single-season reception mark (102 catches) for a running back while also surpassing 1,000 rushing yards.

But during next season, he will turn 30, an age when running backs’ production often drops off precipitously.

Wide receiver Brandon Marshall will be 31 during the 2015 season and he just endured his worst season — 61 catches, 721 yards — since his rookie year.

Was the drop-off in performance due to a series of injuries? Or is he suffering more injuries because he’s getting long in the tooth?

Marshall also has been arrested at least five times. In 2008 the NFL suspended him for violating the league’s personal conduct policy; in 2009 the Broncos suspended him for conduct detrimental to the team.

The best organizations like the Packers and Patriots emphasize bringing in the “right 53” and draft for character and intelligence.

Brandon MarshallMarshall (right) is coming off his worst professional season since his rookie year.

Meanwhile, the Bears have traded for and signed players like Marshall and tight end Martellus Bennett.

Though athletically gifted, Bennett began the year by being suspended for the preseason opener because of conduct detrimental to the team and capped it in Week 16 by receiving an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for mouthing off at a referee. (The latter penalty allowed Detroit to start on its 17-yard-line instead of being backed up at its end zone.)

The defense is even more of a mess.

The unit, which ranked 30th in the league in 2014, lacks players around whom you want to build. Chicago needs upgrades at each level of defense — defensive line, linebacker and secondary.

The Bears made three major free-agent defensive acquisitions for 2014. One was defensive end Jared Allen, who turns 33 in April, and his best days are behind him.

The two others suffered career-threatening injuries. Defensive lineman Lamarr Houston tore his ACL while doing a discount-double-check sack celebration. In Week 16 defensive end Willie Young — the only player on the team with double-digit sacks — tore his Achilles, an injury that likely will sideline him well into next season.

Reasons for optimism

One positive on the defense is Kyle Fuller. Though the cornerback regressed as the season wore on, the Bears felt so confident in the rookie that they left him in single coverage against some of the game’s best receivers, including Calvin Johnson.

Fuller is one of the bright spots. Another is Alshon Jeffery. Just 24, the 6-3, 216-pound target with good hands was drafted two years before Fuller and already has two 1,000-yard receiving seasons to his credit.

The year after Jeffery, the Bears drafted Kyle Long, who has made back-to-back Pro Bowls at right guard. Matt Slauson, the left guard, is a mauler, though he suffered a season-ending torn pectoral muscle in late October.

Also providing some hope for the Bears is the fact that teams in the NFL can accomplish swift turnarounds.

The NFC East has had four different division winners during the last four seasons, demonstrating the topsy-turvy nature of the NFL and how quickly a team can go from woeful to playoff bound.

The Bears will test that theory.

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JFedotin

Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills. During his football playing days at Pembroke Hill (Mo.) School, Fedotin was known for his bad knees and even worse blocking.

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Are these not the same old Lions?

CHICAGO—To record an 11th win for the first time since 1991, the Lions faced a seemingly easy task: defeat a dysfunctional Chicago team that had just benched its starting quarterback.

Detroit, though, committed special teams gaffes, ill-timed penalties and three first-half turnovers.

The Lions looked more like the 2013 team, whose bone-headed

CHICAGO—To record an 11th win for the first time since 1991, the Lions faced a seemingly easy task: defeat a dysfunctional Chicago team that had just benched its starting quarterback.

Detroit, though, committed special teams gaffes, ill-timed penalties and three first-half turnovers.

The Lions looked more like the 2013 team, whose bone-headed errors caused them to lose six of their last seven and fall out of the playoff picture last season.

“This is a game that we lost last year,” Lions running back Reggie Bush told NFP.

Instead the Lions prevailed 20-14 in Week 16 to remain in first place in the NFC North.

A major reason the 11-4 Lions sit atop the division is that quarterback Matthew Stafford has taken a more conservative approach. Instead of zinging the ball all over the field, the Lions have tried to win games on the strength of their stout defense.

Heading into the Week 16 contest on Dec. 21, Stafford had last thrown an interception in Week 12 on Nov. 23 against the Patriots.

Against the Bears, though, Stafford reverted back to the form he displayed while throwing 19 and 17 interceptions, respectively, the last two years.

He killed two second quarter red zone opportunities by forcing passes, which were intercepted by Brock Vereen and Ryan Mundy.

Because of those and other blunders, the Lions were tied with the five-win Bears after one half of play.

At halftime first-year Lions coach Jim Caldwell preached the same consistent message — play a clean half of football, and they would be okay — he had all year.

The 2014 Lions have taken their cues from their stoic coach who always remains on an even keel.

“It starts with Coach Caldwell. He’s really come in and changed a lot about this team,” Bush said. “It’s true that one man can make a difference.”

Last year under fiery Jim Schwartz — though also a smart defensive tactician — the Lions were 2-6 in games decided by four points or fewer. This year they are 4-1.

Better in tight contests, they are playoff bound for just the second time this millennium.

Ndamukong SuhSuh anchors a unit that currently ranks second in the NFL in total defense.

Indeed, with Pro Bowl-caliber players at each defensive level, this may be the most dangerous Lions team in decades.

Ranked second in the league (entering Week 16), the defense is led by one of the best players in the game, defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh.

Safety Glover Quin, who sealed the victory against the Bears with his seventh interception of the season, patrols the back line.

“He’s an integral part to our secondary,” Suh said. “Glover Quin is a hell of a player.”

DeAndre Levy, whose sideline-to-sideline mastery in pursuing running backs is matched by his deftness in pass coverage, keys the LB corps. He collected eight tackles Sunday, falling just short of his 11th double-digit tackle performance of the season.

On the offensive side — with Bush looking healthy after ankle injuries had limited him much of the season — the Lions averaged 5.3 rushing yards on 26 carries against the Bears.

“We’ve got to be able to run the ball well,” Bush said, “in order for us to win this time of year.”

A resurgent running game also prevents opponents from dropping all of their defenders in coverage to stop an explosive passing offense.

Calvin Johnson, the best receiver in the league, recorded his 44th career 100-yard game Sunday.

And Johnson has the best complementary receiver he has ever had in free-agent addition Golden Tate, who has a career-best 1,286 receiving yards this season.

“When people draw coverage away from him and more towards Calvin,” Caldwell said, “he’s certainly given us some very, very important plays.”

But despite possessing this kind of offensive and defensive talent, Detroit will need to play much cleaner than it did against the Bears if it wants to advance in the playoffs or capture the NFC North.

In addition to Stafford’s interceptions, the Lions — while trailing by four points in the fourth quarter — had a 37-yard field goal attempt blocked by Jeremiah Ratliff.

An even more significant special teams miscue occurred in the second quarter.

Jeremy Ross signaled for a fair catch on a punt. But the ball bounced off him, and Bears defensive back Sherrick McManis recovered on Detroit’s 11-yard-line.

Chicago scored one play later to tie the game and gain momentum going into halftime.

Julian Sanford’s roughing the kicker penalty extended the Bears’ third-quarter drive in Detroit territory, and Chicago scored a touchdown three plays later.

Even after retaking the lead in the fourth quarter, the Lions committed a dumb penalty on the Bears’ final drive.

Ezekiel Ansah delivered a helmet-to-helmet hit to Bears quarterback Jimmy Clausen. The 15-yard penalty gave Chicago the ball on its own 45-yard line with plenty of time (2:18) to go.

It was the final error of Detroit’s mistake-plagued victory.

“We definitely want to clean that up,” said center Dominic Raiola, a 14-year veteran. “We need to execute better. We need to be smarter.”

The Lions will need a more crisp performance if they want to win the NFC North, something they can accomplish by defeating Green Bay next week.

Beating the Packers on the road would give Detroit its first division title since 1993.

“This is what we set out for. This was our main goal the beginning of the season,” Bush said. “Now it’s right here in front of us.”

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JFedotin

Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills. During his football playing days at Pembroke Hill (Mo.) School, Fedotin was known for his bad knees and even worse blocking.

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Why the Broncos offense has become even more potent

Denver set an NFL record for touchdowns (76) and points scored (606), and Peyton Manning established passing yardage (5,447) and touchdown (55) marks last year.

The 2014 version may not have those gaudy stats, but is this year’s offense even better?

“Yeah,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton told NFP, “I think it

Denver set an NFL record for touchdowns (76) and points scored (606), and Peyton Manning established passing yardage (5,447) and touchdown (55) marks last year.

The 2014 version may not have those gaudy stats, but is this year’s offense even better?

“Yeah,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton told NFP, “I think it is.”

That’s a scary thought — and a somewhat surprising one, considering Denver’s offseason moves focused on the defensive side with the additions of cornerback Aqib Talib, safety T.J. Ward and defensive end DeMarcus Ware.

But this year’s offense — despite losing wide receiver Eric Decker, a 6-3, 214-pound target, to the Jets as a free agent — may be more versatile and balanced.

The Broncos replaced Decker with Steelers wideout Emmanuel Sanders, who has just one fewer catch and 80 fewer yards through 13 games than Decker had during all of last season, which was the best of Decker’s career.

Though Sanders may not have Decker’s size, his superior speed has given the Broncos another outside threat opposite Demaryius Thomas to further stress a defense.

Sanders, whose catch radius belies his 5-11 frame, has quickly built a rapport with Manning.

“Peyton has a lot of trust in him,” Sutton said. “He’s running great routes and knows how to get open and, of course, he has that great speed.”

Reinvigorated ground game

With Sanders in the mix, the Broncos offense hummed along until a Week 11, 22-7 loss to the Rams when Denver lacked balance, throwing the ball 54 times and rushing it just 10 times.

“It was a wake-up call,” Broncos head coach John Fox said. “Our team realized it, and we adjusted and responded.”

Emmanuel SandersSanders is on pace to shatter all of former Bronco Eric Decker’s marks from 2013.

The next week the Broncos began dedicating themselves to the running game during a 39-36 victory against the Dolphins. After halftime Denver ran on nine of its first 12 plays, and C.J. Anderson, who had 167 rushing yards on the day, touched the ball on eight of them.

Anderson, an undrafted, second-year back, stepped up when injuries sidelined running backs Ronnie Hillman (foot) and Montee Ball (groin). Denver had already lost its leading rusher from last year, Knowshon Moreno, when he signed with Miami as a free agent.

While Anderson, a burly, 5-8, 224-pounder, has allowed Denver to emphasize the run, he is also a weapon in the passing game with 204 receiving yards in his last five games.

“He’s been doing a good job in all phases,” Sutton said. “He’s not just a runner. He’s a good protection guy. He’s a stout guy.”

Against Sutton’s Kansas City defense, Anderson rushed 32 times for 168 yards and caught a 15-yard touchdown.

“C.J. was a workhorse tonight. He was really special,” Manning said after the 29-16 road victory over the Chiefs. “The offensive line was awesome.”

Outstanding O-line

That line is a stronger and deeper unit than last year’s. One major reason is the return of left tackle Ryan Clady, one of the best in the game at one of the most important positions. He missed all but two games last season because of a Lisfranc injury.

His presence has allowed Orlando Franklin to move inside to left guard.

Denver reshuffled the line further against Oakland — also the first game Anderson received double-digit carries — inserting Will Montgomery at center, enabling Manny Ramirez to play his more natural position at right guard instead of center.

The Broncos even went in true road grading mode versus the Chiefs, putting an extra tackle, Paul Cornick, at tight end to create a jumbo look.

“You’ve got to give it to the big fellas up front,” Anderson said. “We are proving to everybody on the outside that we can run the ball.”

Though Anderson is a beneficiary, he also deserves much of the credit. Part of the lineage of former Cal backs tearing up the NFL — including Justin Forsett of the Ravens and Marshawn Lynch of the Seahawks — Anderson has 716 total yards and six touchdowns in his last five games.

During the first game of that stretch, he took a routine checkdown on 3rd-and-8 for a 51-yard touchdown, making a quick cut after busting through three Raiders defenders, which displayed his knack for breaking tackles.

“It’s just being that tough, nasty running back,” Anderson said. “It’s always been in my arsenal.”

Anderson’s emergence puts less pressure on Manning and should make Denver a formidable foe during cold-weather January playoff games and a favorite to reach the Super Bowl.

The running back who started the year as the No. 3 guy on the depth chart is obviously having his best season — as is Sanders, who already has set career highs with 86 receptions, 1,208 yards and seven touchdowns.

Broncos cornerback Chris Harris said the speedy fifth year receiver has improved drastically since his days in Pittsburgh because of his better understanding of the game.

“Also he’s playing with Peyton Manning,” Harris said. “That will always help you.”

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JFedotin

Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills. During his football playing days at Pembroke Hill (Mo.) School, Fedotin was known for his bad knees and even worse blocking.

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Does Mike Evans deserve Rookie of the Year?

It took him four games to score a touchdown and seven to record his first 100-yard game, but Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans now leads all rookies in receiving yards and is tied for the lead in touchdowns.

“(I was) just finding my way around this league,” Evans told NFP. “Now I’m playing

It took him four games to score a touchdown and seven to record his first 100-yard game, but Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans now leads all rookies in receiving yards and is tied for the lead in touchdowns.

“(I was) just finding my way around this league,” Evans told NFP. “Now I’m playing fast.”

With 505 yards in his last four contests, including touchdowns in each of his last four, he clearly has found his groove.

It just took Evans time to adjust from Texas A&M’s air raid spread offense with quarterback Johnny Manziel to a more complicated pro scheme. While serving as Manziel’s primary read, Evans lined up exclusively on the right side at A&M.

With Tampa Bay, the seventh overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft now moves all over the formation — on the outside, in the slot, in motion and on the right and left sides.

“Every receiver’s position that you can play,” Evans said, “I play.”

And he plays it adeptly. The 6-5, 231-pounder has caught 49 balls for 841 yards and eight touchdowns by using his large frame, physical style and ability to adjust to the quarterback’s pass.

“He knows how to control his body to position himself,” quarterback Mike Glennon said. “There have been times where you feel like the ball didn’t come out perfect, and it’ll end up being exactly where you wanted it.”

Hoopster overcomes team’s adversity

Glennon, who started Weeks 4-9, is part of Tampa Bay’s quarterback carousel. Veteran Josh McCown started Weeks 1-3 and 10-12 and struggled with his accuracy in the latter game while completing about half his passes and turning the ball over three times.

Evans has also been without the offensive coordinator brought in to guide the offense, Jeff Tedford, the offensive guru who coached Aaron Rodgers at Cal. A heart ailment forced Tedford to leave the team in September.

No matter who has been throwing passes or designing the scheme, Evans has been a go-to target for the Bucs — particularly on fade routes.

Mike EvansThrough ten games, Evans has already hauled in 49 passes for 841 yards and eight touchdowns on 82 targets.

“Mike’s ability to go and get the ball really kind of separates him,” Glennon said. “His basketball instincts kind of kick in.”

Evans has the same kind of basketball skills that Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham, Julius Thomas and other roundball players-turned-NFL targets have used to their advantage on the gridiron.

At Ball High in Galveston, Texas Evans averaged 18.3 points, 8.4 rebounds and 5.2 assists as a senior. The biggest guy on the team, he played in the post, but Texas, Texas Tech, Houston, Ole Miss and Colorado State offered him scholarships to play shooting guard/small forward, a testament to Evans’ athletic ability.

Though he didn’t go the basketball route, Evans’ best friend, Ball teammate Terran Petteway, did and earned first-team, All-Big Ten honors as a sophomore at Nebraska last season. He led all Big Ten players, scoring 18.1 points.

Evans is on pace to score 13 times this season after adding to his total in Week 12.

Even though it wasn’t his best game, he made several highlight reel plays against the Bears.

In the two-minute offense, he ran a comeback route against another outstanding rookie, Kyle Fuller, who was playing off him. He caught the ball against Fuller and then eluded the cornerback for the first first down on a series which would lead to a field goal.

Earlier in the game — with 13:31 left in the second quarter — Fuller tried a different tactic. He pressed Evans, but the receiver disengaged from him to catch the 19-yard touchdown pass.

“I knocked his hands down and headed to the end zone,” Evans said. “And Josh threw a great ball.”

Evans, though, responded by taunting Fuller, drawing a 15-yard penalty and showing that the 21-year-old still has room to grow.

“(It was) just a little friendly smack talk, but I hurt my team there,” Evans said.

Great classmates

The still-maturing rookie has some exemplary colleagues. The only wide receiver drafted ahead of him, Buffalo’s Sammy Watkins, has 649 yards in just 11 games.

Saints wide receiver Brandin Cooks (20th overall) was leading all rookies with 53 catches before being placed on injured reserve with a thumb injury last week. Kelvin Benjamin of the Panthers (28th overall) has 768 yards.

The Jaguars have a pair of promising rookie receivers (Marqise Lee, 16 catches and 193 yards and Allen Robinson, 48 catches and 548 yards) drafted in the second round. Eagles second-round draft pick Jordan Matthews has 50 receptions for 635 yards, while his teammate, Josh Huff, returned the opening kickoff for a 107-yard score during Week 12.

Two teammates on LSU last year, rookies Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, look like the best receiving targets and returners on their respective teams, the Giants and Dolphins.

John Brown (third round) has become the primary deep threat in the Cardinals’ vertical offense, and Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant (fourth round) has six touchdowns.

Evans does not closely follow his rookie brethren’s stats, but he does come across them while perusing Instagram and Twitter.

“It gives me a little extra motivation,” he said. “We have a good rookie receiving class.”

That 2014 wide receiver class even has drawn comparisons to the great 1996 group, which featured nine players, including Marvin Harrison, Keyshawn Johnson and Terrell Owens, who surpassed 500 career catches and 8,000 yards.

Evans could be headed down that path.

“He’s already one of the top receivers in the league as a rookie,” Glennon said. “He can be really, really good.”

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JFedotin

Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills. During his football playing days at Pembroke Hill (Mo.) School, Fedotin was known for his bad knees and even worse blocking.

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K.C. synergy: how the Royals have bolstered the Chiefs

Before taking questions during his Sept. 25 press conference, Chiefs coach Andy Reid made a declaration, and the theme would become a regular staple of his media briefings throughout the late fall.

“I’m wishing the Royals good luck,” Reid said. “Skipper (Ned) Yost, man, we’re pulling for you and your guys, and I

Before taking questions during his Sept. 25 press conference, Chiefs coach Andy Reid made a declaration, and the theme would become a regular staple of his media briefings throughout the late fall.

“I’m wishing the Royals good luck,” Reid said. “Skipper (Ned) Yost, man, we’re pulling for you and your guys, and I know the whole city is.”

The Royals and Chiefs are connected.

After all, they’re literally closer than almost all professional sports teams who share the same city.

Truman Sports ComplexTruman Sports Complex in Kansas City.

Part of the Truman Sports Complex, Arrowhead Stadium and Kauffman Stadium are neighboring facilities. They share parking lots, and both teams train in the complex — unlike many pro teams that practice in one area of the city and play in a stadium across town.

“Guys have been out to a bunch of practices and vice versa,” quarterback Alex Smith said. “(The Royals) have had us up to some games.”

One day before the Royals played in their first postseason game in 29 years, several Royals, including Billy Butler, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and James Shields, attended the Chiefs’ Monday Night Football game against the Patriots and even made appearances on ESPN’s Monday Night Countdown.

First baseman Hosmer, anxious and excited about making his postseason debut the next night, told USA TODAY: “Hey, we’re not going to be able to sleep anyways.”

Buoyed by a boisterous Kansas City crowd — further energized by the Royals’ ensuing playoff appearance, the first since 1985 — the Chiefs throttled the favored Patriots 41-14. The Chiefs’ win before a nationally televised audience was the team’s biggest victory in years.

Then on the following night, the Royals, who trailed the A’s 7–3 after seven innings in the wild-card, won that thrilling 12-inning contest to ignite a record eight-game postseason winning streak. The amazing comeback by a team, which sat in third place in the AL Central in late July, was part of a magical season for the Royals.

“That’s contagious,” Smith said.

Similarly, the Chiefs, who started 0-2, evened their record by defeating the Patriots and went on to win four of their next five games, firmly placing them in playoff contention and making them one of the hotter teams in the NFL.

The parallels between the teams extend to their playing styles.

The Royals, who finished last in the majors in home runs with just 95, employed small ball. They succeeded in 2014 because of their speed, sacrificing base runners over and stealing bases to compensate for their inability to hit the ball over the fence.

The Chiefs, despite playing in a passing-friendly era, are not an explosive home-run team. None of their wide receivers have caught a touchdown this season. The longest pass play for the Chiefs is 34 yards; every other team has had a pass play that went farther. Ranked 29th in the league in passing entering Week 10, the Chiefs have gained their yardage in small chunks through the run and short passes.

But give the 2014 Chiefs a lead — just like the Royals — and they become a nightmare for opponents.

Kansas City RoyalsFrom left, Kansas City Royals James Shields, Billy Butler and Greg Holland.

If the Royals led after six innings, the opposition was toast. Kansas City would turn the game over in the seventh, eight and ninth innings, respectively, to flamethrowing relievers Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland — who each recorded ERAs under 1.50 in 2014. No other team has ever had two relievers — let alone three — post such low ERAs while appearing in more than 60 games.

With a lead late in the game, the Chiefs don’t have to worry about their anemic passing game and they can rely on their two-headed monster in the running game — Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis, who have paced the Chiefs to the sixth best rushing ranking in the league, heading into Week 10.

Kansas City not only has the personnel to hammer a defense and grind out clock, but they are not a defense a trailing team wants to face.

If the opposition is forced to throw on every down to catch up, Justin Houston, who leads the NFL with 12 sacks, will pin his ears back and tee off on the quarterback. Focus the blocking on Houston, and linebacker Tamba Hali, who has 77.5 career sacks, will apply the pressure.

Making both Houston and Hali’s jobs easier is 346-pound Dontari Poe. One of the best pass rushing nose tackles in the league, he gives the quarterback no place to step up in the pocket and avoid the linebackers coming of the edge.

These assets combined to thwart the Patriots during that Sept. 29 game. Down 17-0 at halftime, the Patriots were forced to throw. That played right into the hands of the Chiefs’ pass rushers, who were aided by the frenzied, Royals-playoff-ready crowd.

The Chiefs sacked Brady three times, and the offense rushed for more than 200 yards.

About a month later, the Chiefs followed the Royals’ World Series run. Smith attended Game 1. Reid had the contest on in the background while he broke down film of the Rams.

The Royals enjoyed a great ride, though they ultimately lost to the San Francisco Giants in seven games.

“I’m proud of the Royals and the job that they did this year,” Reid said. “It’s awesome.”

The Royals, who entered the postseason as a wild-card, ended the longest playoff drought in Major League Baseball, reaching the big stage for the first time since George Brett led them in 1985.

Maybe the Chiefs can follow a similar path.

Though the Broncos likely will lock down the AFC West, the wild-card looks like a possible postseason route for the Chiefs. Once there, they would aim to win a playoff game for the first time since Joe Montana quarterbacked Kansas City to a 28-20 victory against the Houston Oilers in 1993.

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JFedotin

Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills. During his football playing days at Pembroke Hill (Mo.) School, Fedotin was known for his bad knees and even worse blocking.

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Why Philip Rivers deserves more love

Google “rivers crybaby” and you will receive 241,000 hits, including one for a Facebook page called “Philip ‘Cry me a’ Rivers.”

Just as Bears quarterback “Smokin’” Jay Cutler has been negatively labeled apathetic and indifferent, the Internet has trolled Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers for acting like a whiny, little kid.

Perhaps there’s

Google “rivers crybaby” and you will receive 241,000 hits, including one for a Facebook page called “Philip ‘Cry me a’ Rivers.”

Just as Bears quarterback “Smokin’” Jay Cutler has been negatively labeled apathetic and indifferent, the Internet has trolled Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers for acting like a whiny, little kid.

Perhaps there’s a grain of truth to that, but Rivers certainly comes across favorably in person. And on the field, the 32-year-old is having an excellent season.

The quarterback has completed 68.3 percent of his passes for 2,213 yards, 20 touchdowns, five interceptions and a QB rating of 109.9.

“He’s probably playing the position as well as anybody in the league,” said Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton.

Though Sutton’s Chiefs defeated Rivers, and the Chargers lost last Thursday to the Broncos, Rivers remains worthy of MVP consideration along with the more heralded choices — running back DeMarco Murray and quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers.

And those other stars have much better supporting casts.

The Chargers’ top three running backs — Ryan Mathews, Danny Woodhead and Donald Brown — all have been injured, and so San Diego’s bell cow back is Branden Oliver, a 5’7” undrafted rookie from the University of Buffalo.

Rivers does not have targets like Demaryius and Julius Thomas, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb — nor the stout offensive line clearing the way for Murray. (San Diego has lost three centers to injury, including stalwart Nick Hardwick.) The Chargers’ top receivers are Eddie Royal; oft-injured Malcolm Floyd; Keenan Allen, who has regressed from last year, and 34-year-old tight end Antonio Gates.

None of Rivers’ offensive teammates made the Pro Bowl last year.

Philip RiversSince Mike McCoy took over as the head coach in San Diego in 2013, Rivers has completed an astounding 69.1 percent of his passes.

But he does have great pocket presence and is difficult to sack because of his quick release. Just ask Broncos pass rusher DeMarcus Ware, who wore a microphone during Denver’s 35-21 defeat of San Diego and could repeatedly be heard venting his frustration in trying to bring down Rivers.

Though that AFC West contest was far from Rivers’ best game of the season — one in which he’s on pace for 40 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and 4,426 yards — he made several passes with stunning precision.

Less than two minutes into the second quarter, he perfectly placed a back shoulder pass to Floyd for 16 yards. On a 3rd and 20 on the next possession, Rivers stepped up in the pocket and completed a 31-yard pass to Gates and then hit Allen for a touchdown one play later.

“Oh my gosh, the last two seasons he’s been as accurate as anybody in the NFL,” said Sutton, who faced Rivers in Week 7. “The guy can make any throw.”

During the Week 8 road loss to the Broncos, the Sports Authority Field scoreboard repeatedly showed Rivers on the sideline — which Manning later called disrespectful — and it elicited boos.

That’s the typical reaction to Rivers — perhaps a result of his animated reactions to questionable calls and adverse situations.

He vociferously complains to refs. He regularly talks trash to opponents. During the 2010 raucous season opener in monsoon-like conditions at Arrowhead Stadium, a delay-of-game penalty caused him to lose his composure and kick a football in disgust.

His seemingly bratty on-field behavior belies many of his positive attributes.

Rivers is a football junkie. He played for his father, Steve, the football coach at Decatur (Ala.) High and then at nearby Athens High. The water boy at Decatur games as a child, Philip used the school’s pylons and chalk for his own backyard games.

A five-time bowl MVP, including the Senior Bowl, he was always around football. Rivers even believes his side-arm delivery is a result of his frequently tossing a regulation-sized football when he was a four-year-old who lacked the strength to throw overhand.

Whenever I’ve interviewed Rivers, who married his high school sweetheart after his freshman season at N.C. State, he gives off a folksy demeanor and is very polite, friendly and respectful.

While Rivers appears kind, his toughness is unquestioned.

Just six days after tearing his ACL, he played every snap in the 2007 AFC Championship Game.

It was one of the gutsiest performances in sports history, and he underwent reconstructive knee surgery three days later.

The Chargers lost that AFC Championship Game, 21-12, to the Patriots. Maybe reaching the Super Bowl — like Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, his brethren from the 2004 draft class — would change fans’ perspective.

Early in his career, some of Rivers’ most talented Chargers’ teams seemed to have a good chance to get there — only to be slowed by sluggish starts. San Diego began 1-3 in 2007, 4-8 in 2008, 2-3 in 2009 and 3-5 in 2010.

“We can’t wait until our backs our against the wall,” Rivers told CBS Sports.

Perhaps learning that lesson, the Chargers’ 2014 season has been a different story as they stormed out of the gate 5-1.

Maybe the narrative on Rivers will change too.

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JFedotin

Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills. During his football playing days at Pembroke Hill (Mo.) School, Fedotin was known for his bad knees and even worse blocking.

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The curious case of LaMichael James

This season has featured the most unusual of career paths for running back LaMichael James.

After asking for his release from the 49ers’ active roster, the 2012 second-round draft pick and former Oregon star joined the Dolphins’ practice squad on Sept. 30.

James, who missed time with a

This season has featured the most unusual of career paths for running back LaMichael James.

After asking for his release from the 49ers’ active roster, the 2012 second-round draft pick and former Oregon star joined the Dolphins’ practice squad on Sept. 30.

James, who missed time with a dislocated elbow during training camp, had just two carries for zero yards in the 49ers’ 28-17 Week 1 victory against the Cowboys. He then pushed for his release.

“He wanted to go to an offense where he had a hope of playing,” said Jeff Sperbeck, James’ agent. “He was playing in an offense that didn’t necessarily fit his style.”

The 5’9”, 195-pounder didn’t match the 49ers’ scheme that features downhill thumpers rather than elusive backs who could be moved around the field.

However, it’s still a bit odd that James would ask for his release. Sure, rookie Carlos Hyde had displaced him as the club’s No. 2 running back behind Frank Gore, and James also had lost his return duties to wide receiver Bruce Ellington.

But the run-oriented 49ers lack the RB depth they had in years past. Marcus Lattimore remains on the active/non-football injury list, and Kendall Hunter tore his ACL during training camp.

What is an even more bizarre is that James opted to join another team’s practice squad, typically a holding area for young, raw players or late-round draft picks.

James, now 24, finished third in the 2010 Heisman Trophy voting (behind Cam Newton and Andrew Luck), had a 15-yard touchdown in an NFC Championship Game and had three rushes and three kick returns in Super Bowl XLVII.

The practice squad hardly seems like a place for someone with his football resume and experience.

LaMichael JamesICONJames was a star at Oregon, but the multi-purpose running back has yet to make a splash in the NFL.

Sperbeck would not disclose the specific franchises but said six teams showed interest with some wanting to sign him to their active roster.

On the surface, teams with injury-depleted RB groups like the Panthers and Chargers, poor rushing teams like the Broncos and Rams or the Ray Rice-less Ravens and Adrian Peterson-less Vikings may seem like more logical destinations than Miami.

But a major reason he chose the Dolphins was because offensive coordinator Bill Lazor’s spread and zone-read offense complements James’ style. Last season Lazor served as the QB coach for the Eagles’ Chip Kelly, under whom James led the nation with 1,731 rushing yards at Oregon in 2010.

“He wanted to be with a team that he felt comfortable with the offense,” Sperbeck said. “Miami made the most sense.”

The expectation from his camp is that James, who has practiced with the team just over a week, will become an active player once he learns the verbiage of the offense.

But reaching the active roster and rising up the depth chart is no gimme.

Even after Knowshon Moreno tore his ACL Sunday, Lamar Miller, Daniel Thomas and Damien Williams sit ahead of James on the depth chart. Moreover, the Dolphins have run the ball well, ranking as the fifth best rushing offense in the league, heading into Week 6.

One could argue, though, that the roster doesn’t have a star back, and the closest player to that — Moreno — is now out for the year.

James could potentially see time as a returner for Miami, but rookie Jarvis Landry adeptly has handled those duties so far.

Another obstacle besides playing time is money. Sperbeck did not disclose James’ contract with the Dolphins, but practice squad compensation is typically about $6,300 a week. Whatever James is earning with Miami is likely a far cry from the four-year, $3.318 million contract to which the 49ers signed him after drafting him.

“It’s a testament to his desire to want to play and be great,” Sperbeck said. “Picking up a paycheck was not good enough. It’s not what he plays the game for.”

The 49ers do not owe him any more money, one likely reason they were amenable to his request for a release.

“I’m not going to talk about what led to it or the procedure,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “I wish LaMichael well. I appreciate his contribution and wish him success moving forward in his career.”

Though rumors of discord between Harbaugh and the 49ers front office and his players have swirled, Sperbeck flatly denied that as a reason for James’ decision to move on.

“He’s fine with everybody,” Sperbeck said. “He enjoyed San Francisco.”

While with the 49ers, James averaged an impressive 4.5 yards per carry during his limited playing time. He performed particularly well in the 2012 postseason, carrying 11 times for 65 yards, though he fumbled in the Super Bowl.

He played in 10 games in 2013, seeing most of his action as a returner. He carried just 12 times for 59 yards and had just two catches for 16 yards. He did average 10.9 yards on 23 punt returns. Over his two seasons, he also returned 26 kickoffs, including a 62-yarder as rookie.

James, though, felt he could do more in a different situation.

“He’s looking forward to contributing to the Dolphins,” Sperbeck said.

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JFedotin

Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills. During his football playing days at Pembroke Hill (Mo.) School, Fedotin was known for his bad knees and even worse blocking.

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Why do the Packers own the Bears?

CHICAGO—After the Packers’ 38-17 victory against the Bears, Green Bay has now won eight of the last nine and 10 of the last 12 in the hallowed NFL rivalry.

Green Bay hasn’t lost in Soldier Field since 2010.

“I don’t know if there’s something here in the water or what,” Packers wide

CHICAGO—After the Packers’ 38-17 victory against the Bears, Green Bay has now won eight of the last nine and 10 of the last 12 in the hallowed NFL rivalry.

Green Bay hasn’t lost in Soldier Field since 2010.

“I don’t know if there’s something here in the water or what,” Packers wide receiver Randall Cobb told NFP.

The likely reason for the Packers’ success against the Bears is more directly football related: far superior quarterback play.

The Packers have been led by Aaron Rodgers — perhaps the best quarterback in the game — while the Bears have been quarterbacked by Jay Cutler, whose decision-making often belies his considerable talent.

The discrepancy was never more on display than during this Week 4 contest. With both squads featuring questionable defenses, it was poised to be a shootout.

And indeed — for only the second time in NFL regular-season history — neither team punted.

But Rodgers, who is 11-3 as a starting quarterback against the Bears, was at his gun-slinging best.

The Packers scored on six consecutive drives, and he dissected Chicago’s one-high zone defense, completing 22 of 28 passes for 302 yards and four touchdowns for a near-perfect QB rating of 151.2.

“He had our offense in full control,” Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson said. “He made some great throws.”

Aaron RodgersRodgers completed a season-high 78.6 percent of his passes against the Bears on Sunday.

His accuracy was incredibly precise, but Rodgers’ most impressive play may have occurred on one that didn’t count.

As defensive lineman Lamarr Houston drilled the quarterback — torquing him in an awkward position that surprisingly did not result in serious injury — Rodgers threw a 34-yard touchdown pass to Davante Adams.

A hold on center Corey Linsley nullified the play, but it showed Rodgers’ ability to make anything happen.

While Rodgers’ play left one wondering, How did he do that? Cutler too often left observers pondering, Why did he do that?

His 22-of-34, 256-yard day, in which he was relieved by Jimmy Clausen, included two interceptions.

With 1:48 left in the third quarter, a Cutler pass was picked off by cornerback Sam Shields, returned 62 yards and pretty much sealed the Packers victory.

The throw — the second interception of the day — was meant for Brandon Marshall on a hook route, but it was so errant that it looked like it was intended for Shields, who said he was “kind of shocked” it so easily came his way.

But the interceptions weren’t Cutler’s only poor decisions.

With nine seconds left in the first half, the ball on the Packers nine and no timeouts left, the Bears ran four vertical routes, and Cutler threw short of the goal line and to the middle of the field to tight end Martellus Bennett.

As a result, the half ended, the Bears didn’t score a touchdown and lacked time for a field goal attempt.

With the way the Packers dominated the rest of the game, it may not have mattered in the end, but at the time, points were at a premium. And with a chip-shot field goal, the Bears would have only trailed by one point going into the second half.

Instead Chicago faced an uphill climb in the second, started pressing and forced throws. That played right into the hands of an opportunistic, though porous, Packers defense.

“When you can play with a lead like we did,” Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk said. “(They) have to start moving the ball down the field to catch up.”

Hawk, who has played in Soldier Field nine times, relishes playing in Chicago.

“It’s fun to be a part of a game like this. We know how much goes into the games and the history and the tradition,” Hawk said. “As a fan of football, I have a ton of respect for the old guys like Dick Butkus, who was here today.”

Chicago also used to be the home for Packers defender Julius Peppers, who played four seasons with the Bears.

When Peppers assisted on a first-quarter tackle and his name was announced over the PA system, the Soldier Field crowd booed.

“I heard it,” Peppers said. “I don’t care about that, man. What do you expect?”

Such bad blood is nothing new to the rivalry, which has been played an NFL-record 189 times. (The Cardinals-Bears is technically the oldest matchup, dating back to 1920.)

Though the Bears lead the overall series 93-90-6 against the Packers, they have suffered similar losing stretches to the current one, including losing nine of 10 from 1994 to 1998 and seven of eight from 2000 to 2003.

During those skids the Packers were led by one future Hall of Famer — Brett Favre — while the Bears started a total of eight different quarterbacks.

Favre’s successor — Rodgers — is bound for the Hall of Fame as well, and his quarterback play continues to give Green Bay the edge in the modern series, which was never more apparent than on Sunday in Soldier Field.

“A great rivalry that has been around longer than most of us have been alive,” Rodgers said, “it’s an honor to play here and it is fun when they go like this.”

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @jfedotin

Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills. During his football playing days at Pembroke Hill (Mo.) School, Fedotin was known for his bad knees and even worse blocking.

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Is Dee Milliner a complete bust?

Days after trading Darrelle Revis — considered by many as the best cornerback in the game at the time — to the Buccaneers, the Jets drafted Dee Milliner as his de facto replacement.

Milliner was anything but.

The ninth overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft struggled for much of his rookie

Days after trading Darrelle Revis — considered by many as the best cornerback in the game at the time — to the Buccaneers, the Jets drafted Dee Milliner as his de facto replacement.

Milliner was anything but.

The ninth overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft struggled for much of his rookie season, playing poorly and fighting through lingering injuries. Pro Football Focus ranked him as the 68th best cornerback in the NFL last season.

Head coach Rex Ryan benched Milliner three times in nine games, and the zenith came when Ryan admonished him on the sideline during a 23-3 home loss to the Dolphins in Week 13.

After such a rough start to his career, can Milliner still become the shutdown corner he was drafted to be?

“Shutdown corner?” Ryan paused, as if pondering the term, before telling NFP: “He’ll be a good one. I don’t think there’s any doubt.”

Ryan praised Milliner’s ability to play the football in the air and his speed, traits the cornerback showcased as an All-American at Alabama.

This year more pressure was put on the second-year player’s shoulders after the Cardinals signed the Jets’ best cornerback from last year, Antonio Cromartie, during the offseason.

In July Milliner then told reporters that he was the best cornerback in the NFL.

It was a laughable statement for someone who had trouble staying in the starting lineup during his lone NFL year — let alone becoming an elite player. During his only game in 2014, he more closely resembled the worst cornerback in the game.

Dee MillinerMilliner has notched three interceptions in 14 career games with the Jets.

In fairness, though, Milliner suffered a high ankle sprain on Aug. 10, which has greatly limited him since, including during Week 3 practices.

Injuries have proven to be a major issue throughout his short NFL career. Prior to last season, he missed much of the offseason program after recovering from surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder, and an Achilles injury cut short his preseason.

“The young man can play,” Ryan said. “We’ve just got to get him healthy and get him back on that field.”

Looking less than healthy, Milliner made his season debut in Week 2. Antonio Allen and Darrin Walls started, but Milliner entered the game as part of a three-man CB rotation with Allen and Walls.

The results were disastrous for Milliner as Green Bay wide receiver Jordy Nelson burned him on a double-move for an 80-yard touchdown. It was an absolute juked-out-of-your-jock kind of play and part of Nelson’s nine-catch, 208-yard receiving day during the Packers’ 31-24 victory.

Milliner, who said his ankle tightened up late in the contest, asked out of the game after that.

“Last week wasn’t his best,” Ryan said. “That’s for sure.”

Ryan’s hope, though, rests on how Milliner ended last season. Four of his five best games occurred during December. He earned the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Month honors during that period, culminating with a 20-17 victory against the Dolphins when he had five passes defended, two interceptions and effectively supported the run in Week 17.

“The last month of the season he really came on,” Ryan said.

The Jets are in desperate need for Milliner to replicate that kind of effort.

Having lost Cromartie, released Dimitri Patterson (a free agent signed from the Dolphins over the offseason) and placed rookie third-round pick Dexter McDougle on injured reserve with a torn ACL, the team is thin at cornerback. And with Ryan’s penchant for exotic blitzes, the team’s cornerbacks bear a lot of responsibility and are often left in single coverage.

It will help the Jets if Milliner’s secondary mate, rookie safety Calvin Pryor —who New York selected over Milliner’s Alabama teammate, safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix —fulfills his potential. The Packers drafted Clinton-Dix three picks later in the first round.

Pryor has started both games this season at free safety, and Ryan said he “love(s) him as a hitter,” but that his coverage ability and understanding of angles needs to catch up to his punishing, thumping style.

“You don’t have to see him play. You can hear him play,” Ryan said. “It won’t be long. This kid’s gonna be a difference maker.”

With the Jets secondary lacking experience and depth, getting rid of Revis, who was shipped out months after tearing his ACL and now looks to have rounded back into form, looks dubious.

The trade, however, netted the Jets the 13th pick in the 2013 draft (along with a fourth-round pick in 2014, wide receiver Jalen Saunders).

New York used the former selection on defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson, the 2013 Defensive Rookie of Year, who, along with Muhammad Wilkerson, gives New York one of the best defensive lines in football and forms the backbone of the NFL’s third-ranked defense.

“Our defense starts up front,” Ryan said. “That’s where we’re probably the strongest.”

But it’s at the back end of the Jets defense where questions remain.

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JFedotin

Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills. During his football playing days at Pembroke Hill (Mo.) School, Fedotin was known for his bad knees and even worse blocking.

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Are the Texans this year’s surprise team?

HOUSTON—Gritty defensive lineman J.J. Watt strode to NRG Stadium in a tight-fitting army T-shirt and camo hat.

Then, after the season-opening victory, Gucci-loving safety, D.J. Swearinger, nicknamed “Swag,” kept a media horde waiting at his locker while he methodically fastened his flashy red belt.

The Texans players may have disparate styles, but

HOUSTON—Gritty defensive lineman J.J. Watt strode to NRG Stadium in a tight-fitting army T-shirt and camo hat.

Then, after the season-opening victory, Gucci-loving safety, D.J. Swearinger, nicknamed “Swag,” kept a media horde waiting at his locker while he methodically fastened his flashy red belt.

The Texans players may have disparate styles, but they have perfectly meshed this season.

“One of the big things that Coach O’Brien always talks about is complementary football,” Watt said. “There are three phases of the game, and we need to perform well in all three. When those three work together, that is when you really have success.”

Spurred by a Watt-led defense, playmaking special teams — that has produced a blocked punt for a touchdown and a blocked extra point — and a run-first offense that limits mistakes, the Texans have begun the season 2-0.

With a favorable schedule — at Giants, vs. Bills, at Cowboys — the AFC South’s first-place team could be 5-0, heading into a pivotal Thursday night contest against the Colts, the division’s reigning champs.

“You’re going to see us start to peak,” running back Arian Foster told NFP. “And it’s going to be fun.”

The NFL’s best defensive player

The anchor for Houston’s team as it tries to rebound from last year’s 2-14 campaign is Watt.

J.J. WattThrough two games, Watt has proven to be worth every penny of his new contract.

The fourth-year veteran, who recently signed a six-year, $100 million extension — a record for a defensive player — put on a tour-de-force performance during a Week 1, 17-6 victory against the Redskins.

Because of his repeated knockdowns of RG III — even when they weren’t sacks — the Redskins quarterback looked tentative and never got into a rhythm. With almost 10 minutes left in the game, Watt had six quarterback hits, a sack, a forced fumble, a four-yard tackle for loss and the blocked extra point.

For good measure, Watt, a tight end at Central Michigan before transferring to Wisconsin, even caught a TD pass in Week 2.

“He plays the game at a crazy level. He affects the game in so many ways — whether it’s knocking down passes or sacking the quarterback or even just causing confusion on the play,” wide receiver Andre Johnson said. “That’s why he was rewarded the way he was. He deserves every penny of it.”

Watt is also profiting from the return of linebacker Brian Cushing, who endured back-to-back season-ending knee injuries. (Heading into the 2014 season, when Cushing is in the lineup, Houston has given up the fewest yards in the NFL since 2011.)

The defense could become more potent if 2014’s No. 1 overall draft pick, Jadeveon Clowney, can return in four to six weeks from a torn meniscus he suffered in the second quarter of Week 1.

Before going down with injury, Clowney most frequently lined up on the right side against the blind-side tackle. He displayed a nice burst and athleticism but still needed a lot of work on diagnosing plays. (For example, he was badly fooled on a play-action pass to Redskins tight end Jordan Reed.)

QB concerns?

With a plethora of defensive playmakers on the Houston roster, the fate of the Texans could hinge on the play of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Foster raved about the intelligence, moxie and calming presence of his new signal-caller.

Ryan FitzpatrickThrough two games with the Texans, Fitzpatrick has yet to commit a turnover.

“He’s a Harvard kid. He’s got the smarts,” Foster said. “He has this air about him that nothing really gets him. You like to see that from a quarterback.”

Through the first two games, Fitzpatrick has completed 68.2 percent of his passes and has yet to make a turnover.

He has adeptly assumed the role of proficient game manager, allowing Houston to ride its weapons like Foster, DeAndre Hopkins and Johnson.

Fitzpatrick, however, has only averaged 172.5 passing yards. Despite opening Week 1 in a quarterback-friendly spread formation and having targets in Hopkins and Johnson, who combined for 2,209 yards last year, Fitzpatrick’s accuracy looked spotty, and his arm strength pedestrian.

And Fitzpatrick’s track record is more representative of a journeyman than someone who should be at the helm of a talented team.

Houston is Fitzpatrick’s fifth NFL team. He has completed less than 60 percent of his career pass attempts and never had a QB rating greater than 83.3 in a season.

Going into the regular season, I expected quarterback Ryan Mallett, Tom Brady’s New England understudy acquired on Aug. 31 from the Patriots, to be thrust into the starting role at some point.

But given Houston’s positive outlook and Fitzpatrick’s early play, the incumbent has a firm hold on the job and is a major reason why the Texans have gone from worst to first.

Though Mallet said he has quickly mastered the offense, he wisely emphasized that the Texans are Fitzpatrick’s team and effusively praised him.

“He’s a great player, a smart guy and he’s a great teammate,” Mallett said. “He’s hilarious. He keeps the room fun.”

The good times are definitely rolling in Houston.

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JFedotin</p>

Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills. During his football playing days at Pembroke Hill (Mo.) School, Fedotin was known for his bad knees and even worse blocking.

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The Chiefs’ new quarterback approach

KANSAS CITY, Mo.— On a sunny, 72-degree Labor Day morning, Chiefs general manager John Dorsey announced quarterback Alex Smith’s four-year extension.

“It’s a great day for the franchise,” Dorsey told NFP.

The quarterback prospects indeed look bright for a club that previously had one of the NFL’s more dismal track records at

KANSAS CITY, Mo.— On a sunny, 72-degree Labor Day morning, Chiefs general manager John Dorsey announced quarterback Alex Smith’s four-year extension.

“It’s a great day for the franchise,” Dorsey told NFP.

The quarterback prospects indeed look bright for a club that previously had one of the NFL’s more dismal track records at the game’s most important position. (Joe Montana was the last Chiefs passer to win a playoff game, and that occurred after the 1993 regular season.)

Signing Smith to a four-year extension, averaging $17 million a year is a watershed deal for the Chiefs.

If Smith, who was slated to become a free agent after the season, plays out the entirety of his contract, he will have been with the Chiefs for six years, making him the longest tenured starting quarterback since Trent Green led the team from 2001-2006. (And a concussion limited Green to just eight games in 2006.)

That not only provides the Chiefs the kind of stability it hasn’t had in about a decade, but it also allows them to potentially save their franchise tag and use it on linebacker Justin Houston, a free agent at year’s end.

Alex SmithSmith won 11 games and led the Chiefs to the playoffs during his first season in Kansas City.

“As a quarterback you certainly don’t want to hamstring your team in any way,” Smith said. “At the same time, you do want something that’s fair.”

The deal does seem fair for a quarterback who owns a 30-9-1 record as a starter since 2011. While making the Pro Bowl last year, Smith completed 60.6 percent of his passes for 3,313 yards, 23 touchdowns and only seven interceptions.

The contract guarantees Smith $45 million. (In separate 2013 deals, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford received about $42 million in guaranteed money, and Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo garnered $55 million.)

Smith’s deal also was timely. Though he publicly said his uncertain contract status would not be a distraction during the year, he had pushed his agent, former Chiefs player Tom Condon, to agree to an extension before the start of the regular season.

“That kind of clutter’s gone from your head, and you can really kind of focus in and get ready for this Week 1,” Smith said. “I’m really happy that it did get done.”

Smith expressed excitement about cementing Kansas City as his home, the respect the new deal gave him and said that his teammates were already busting his chops about his new cash flow, but he knows the reality that there is no such thing as complete security in the NFL.

“You’re ultimately always proving yourself,” Smith said. “And it’s every year and it’s every week.”

In case Smith’s play does decline, the Chiefs have wisely prepared for life after Smith, who turned 30 in May.

Last year the Chiefs signed rookie Tyler Bray, a strong-armed, 6-6 quarterback whose questionable maturity and football smarts caused him to unexpectedly slide in the draft, as an undrafted free agent. This year the Chiefs drafted Aaron Murray, the SEC’s all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns, in the fifth round.

Neither has the requisite experience to serve as Smith’s No. 2, so the Chiefs made Murray their No. 3 quarterback behind Chase Daniel and deftly stashed Bray on the injured reserve list.

“It’s great to be able to keep all of them,” head coach Andy Reid said. “They all did a good job this camp.”

Bray suffered a high ankle sprain in the final preseason game. (In order to qualify for injured reserve, a player must have suffered a serious injury lasting at least six weeks.) It is noteworthy that while most injured reserve players are not seen or heard from, Bray was dressed in a practice jersey and shorts on Monday, though he did not participate.

While several teams, including the Broncos and Patriots, have just two quarterbacks on the active roster, the Chiefs are wisely bucking that recent NFL trend by stockpiling signal-callers.

This is an important strategy, considering Kansas City’s dire quarterback history. The last quarterback drafted by the team to win a game was Todd Blackledge in 1987. (And Blackledge didn’t exactly “win” the game for the team, completing 6-of-15 passes for 79 yards during the 20-13 victory against the Chargers.)

The nine quarterbacks drafted since then (not including Murray) — Danny McManus, Mike Elkins, Matt Blundin, Steve Matthews, Steve Stenstrom, Pat Barnes, James Kilian, Brodie Croyle and Ricky Stanzi — have been total washouts.

But Reid and Dorsey are adopting the strategy they learned from the Packers, their first NFL organization, under general manager Ron Wolf.

Green Bay constantly drafted quarterbacks, even though it had Brett Favre on the roster. That approach netted players like fifth-round pick Mark Brunell, sixth-round pick Matt Hasselbeck and fourth-round pick Aaron Brooks.

Unearthing quality quarterbacks allowed the Packers to receive valuable draft picks in exchange for them later on. And if Favre had suffered injuries or not had such historic career longevity, the Packers would have had replacements in house.

The Packers still managed to draft Favre’s successor, the exceptional Aaron Rodgers, in 2005.

Using that Packers method, the Chiefs have taken steps toward addressing the future of their quarterback position — most notably by ensuring that Kansas City remains Smith’s home.

“We love it here,” Smith said.

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JFedotin

Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills. During his football playing days at Pembroke Hill (Mo.) School, Fedotin was known for his bad knees and even worse blocking.

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Why the Patriots and Broncos will rule the AFC (again)

The Broncos held a press conference on March 12, announcing the signing of the Cowboys’ all-time sack leader, DeMarcus Ware.

“We’re a team this year to be reckoned with,” Ware said. “We’re trying to make a statement.”

That statement reverberated league-wide. The best team in the AFC, which went 13-3

The Broncos held a press conference on March 12, announcing the signing of the Cowboys’ all-time sack leader, DeMarcus Ware.

“We’re a team this year to be reckoned with,” Ware said. “We’re trying to make a statement.”

That statement reverberated league-wide. The best team in the AFC, which went 13-3 in 2013 and set an NFL-record for points, had just become markedly better after adding not only Ware, but also safety T.J. Ward and cornerback Aqib Talib.

One would think that the signing of the Patriots’ shutdown cornerback would weaken New England. The reigning AFC East champs, however, actually improved its secondary over the offseason, signing Darrelle Revis, one of the few cornerbacks who might even be better than Talib, and Brandon Browner.

The 2014 offseason shaped up like an arms race between the previous season’s top two AFC teams who faced off in the last AFC Championship Game, a 26-16 Broncos win that was the 15th rendition of the Tom Brady-Peyton Manning Bowl.

No. 16 will come on Nov. 2, and No. 17 should occur in this year’s AFC Championship Game — with a Super Bowl berth on the line.

Broncos bolster D

For all of the Broncos’ success last year, the Super Bowl runner-up still had defensive issues, ranking 27th against the pass.

Although that statistic could be a bit skewed — because Denver’s potent offense put up so many points that it forced offenses to abandon their run games early in a desperate attempt to catch up — the Broncos defense had fallen off a bit.

DeMarcus WareWare brings depth and a serious sack resume to the Denver pass rush.

A defense that finished first in sacks in the NFL in 2012 had fallen to middle of the pack in 2013. Some of that should improve naturally.

After serving a six-game drug suspension in 2013 and then tearing his ACL in the second to last game of the regular season, pass rusher Von Miller returns. Third-year defensive lineman Derek Wolfe, who had six sacks during a promising rookie season, struggled through a neck injury, seizure and subsequent depression during 2013. He is now healthy.

Further help should come from Ware. The seven-time Pro Bowler has 117 career sacks but suffered through the worst season of his career, recording just six sacks in 2013.

Part of the drop-off may have been due to age or the Cowboys’ new scheme, but the 32-year-old, who has raved about playing with Miller, attributes the down year to an elbow injury, which required offseason surgery.

The injury made it difficult to disengage from offensive linemen, and he said that’s a reason his production tailed off after having four sacks through the first four games.

“It started to get a little worse,” Ware said. “It was pretty painful.”

In addition to bolstering the pass rush, the Broncos have improved their secondary, signing Ward, a hard-hitting 2013 Pro Bowler. Denver fans are familiar with their problems on the back end, most notoriously demonstrated by the coverage breakdown against the Ravens in the playoffs two years ago when wide receiver Jacoby Jones scored the game-tying, 70-yard touchdown.

A physical and elite cornerback, Talib also should provide an upgrade over Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

The 6-1, 205-pound Talib covered Jimmy Graham one-on-one almost exclusively during an October game, remarkably holding the transcendent Saints tight end without a catch (the only time he went without a reception all season). Other NFL teams had unsuccessfully rotated defenders, mixed coverages, employed double teams and used everything from linebackers to safeties to try and limit Graham.

How the Pats bettered their roster

The Patriots have replaced Talib with the player who was the best cornerback in football before an ACL injury ended his 2012 season. Last year in his lone season with the Buccaneers, Revis played a lot of zone. Look for the Patriots to use him in more aggressive man coverage — Revis’ specialty — now that he’s two years removed from the knee injury.

Brandon BrownerRevis was the marquee signing, but the addition of Browner brings some big-time size to the New England secondary.

Though Browner will miss four games due to a drug suspension, the former Seahawk is the game’s biggest cornerback at 6-4, 221 pounds, and he uses that frame to excel as a man defender, likely giving New England the most aggressive set of cornerbacks east of Seattle.

With those defensive back additions, plus the return of defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, linebacker Jerod Mayo and defensive lineman Tommy Kelly — who combined to miss 33 games because of their season-ending injuries in 2013 — the Patriots might have their best defense since their back-to-back Super Bowl squads of 2003 and 2004.

At the very least, it should be an improved unit over the one that ranked 26th in the league overall and 26th on third-down conversions, allowing 42.2 percent.

The Patriots should be better offensively as well. They return right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who missed half the season with a broken leg, and one of Brady’s best weapons, tight end Rob Gronkowski, who missed nine games because of back surgery and a season-ending torn ACL.

With Gronk back, along with the signing of wide receiver Brandon LaFell, who has surpassed 600 receiving yards in each of his last three years, Brady should have more capable receiving targets, an area which was deficient last season and helped account for the quarterback’s lowest completion percentage since 2003.

From its receiving corps, Denver lost Eric Decker, but the Broncos replaced him with Emmanuel Sanders, an impressive get, especially considering the team already had Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and Wes Welker in the fold as weapons for Manning.

But the real boon for the offense could come with the return of left tackle Ryan Clady, one of the best in the game at one of the most important positions. He missed all but two games last year because of a Lisfranc injury.

It’s amazing that the Broncos scored 606 points last year despite lacking their elite blind-side tackle, and Clady’s presence allows Orlando Franklin to move inside to left guard and Chris Clark from left to right tackle.

The Broncos likely will need those O-line fortifications to counter the Patriots’ revamped D as the two heavyweights jostle for AFC supremacy once again.

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JFedotin

Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills. During his football playing days at Pembroke Hill (Mo.) School, Fedotin was known for his bad knees and even worse blocking.

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Is Alex Smith as valuable as Jay Cutler?

One of the hot topics swirling around Chiefs camp has focused on the future of quarterback Alex Smith, whose three-year, $25.25 million contract is set to expire at the end of the 2014 season.

Will the Chiefs re-sign him?

“There’s communication going on,” Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said. “They are working

One of the hot topics swirling around Chiefs camp has focused on the future of quarterback Alex Smith, whose three-year, $25.25 million contract is set to expire at the end of the 2014 season.

Will the Chiefs re-sign him?

“There’s communication going on,” Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said. “They are working through it, and we’ll see what happens.”

Smith’s camp is pushing for mega dollars, and the likely comparison is the last veteran quarterback to earn a hefty extension — Chicago’s Jay Cutler, who signed a seven-year, $126.7 million contract in January.

When examining just their physical attributes, Cutler seems more worthy of franchise quarterback money than Smith.

Raw skills vs. intangibles

The Bears signal-caller has ideal quarterback size at 6-3, 220 pounds and perhaps the game’s best arm, one that can hum a pass into the tightest of windows and from the longest of distances.

Former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, who hand-picked Cutler, trading up to draft him for Denver, said Cutler has a stronger arm than John Elway, Shanahan’s former quarterback who had one of the most powerful arms in NFL history.

In comparison Smith, though listed at 6-4, 217, looks almost slight — as if you wonder whether he can hold up through the rigors of a season — when seen in person.

Alex SmithSmith tossed a career high 23 touchdowns passes in 2013.

His arm strength is pedestrian by NFL quarterback standards, and that’s one reason his career yards per attempt (6.6) is almost a full yard less than Cutler’s. Last year many of Smith’s throws were checkdowns or short passes, and Smith underwent operations on his throwing shoulder in 2007 and 2008.

Cutler has thrown for more than 3,000 yards in a season five times and 20 or more touchdowns four times. Last year Smith passed the 3,000-yard barrier for just the second time in his career and the 20-TD mark for the first.

Lacking Cutler’s physical gifts and eye-popping plays, Smith has been called a “game manager.” However, he has thrown for more touchdowns over the last three years than Cutler — in addition to not forcing as many throws.

During that period Cutler has almost double the interceptions, throwing 51 touchdowns and 33 interceptions; Smith has a 53:17 ratio.

“We don’t have a quarterback that’s wild with the ball,” Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson said. “He’s a quarterback that’s going to manage the game and make safe decisions.”

Perhaps as a result, during the last three years, Smith also has a better record as a starting quarterback. He is 31-11-1; Cutler is 22-14.

More impressive is Smith’s play in the clutch. He has thrown nine touchdowns and no interceptions in the playoffs, including his masterpiece against the Saints when he outplayed Drew Brees, and his game-winning, 14-yard TD pass to Vernon Davis is so ingrained in 49ers annals that it has its own nickname, “The Grab.”

Cutler’s postseason play has been subpar — to say the least. His lone playoff victory came against a 7-9 Seahawks team. And his biggest game to date featured a poor and mystifying performance, when he left the game with a knee injury during the NFC Championship Game, and critics questioned his toughness.

In addition Cutler has been derided for his apathy (a result of dismissive body language) and being a bad teammate (for incidents like cursing and pushing J’Marcus Webb).

Because of his leadership and work ethic, Smith was purposefully chosen by Reid and general manager John Dorsey to spearhead the Chiefs’ rebuild from their rudderless 2-14 disaster in 2012.

“Alex is a good football player and he’s great for this football team,” Reid said. “We’re lucky to have him here.”

Smith not only triggered the Chiefs’ turnaround from cellar dweller to 11-5 playoff team, but he also has proven to be durable. The only starts he missed in the last three years were the last game of 2013 — when the Chiefs intentionally rested him because their playoff seeding was locked up — and because of a concussion, which ultimately led to Colin Kaepernick replacing him.

Cutler, meanwhile, has missed 12 games due to injury during the last three seasons.

Cutler-Smith similarities

Despite the aforementioned differences, using Cutler as a contract model makes sense. They are about the same age. (Cutler is 31; Smith is 30.)

They even have suffered through similar growing pains.

Jay CutlerCutler hasn’t played a full 16-game regular season since 2009.

Like Cutler with his knee injury debacle, Smith was once labeled a malingerer. After the quarterback separated his shoulder in 2007, 49ers head coach Mike Nolan questioned the injury’s severity and whether the former No. 1 overall pick could play through pain.

That wasn’t the only dose of adversity for Smith, who played for four different head coaches and seven different offensive coordinators during his 49ers tenure from 2005 to 2012. During his five years with the Bears, Cutler has had four different offensive coordinators.

The Chiefs also may try to structure Smith’s contract in a similar way to Cutler’s extension. Though his $126.7 million figure is gaudy, the deal lacks a signing bonus, creating a kind of pay-as-you-go series of cap hits for the Bears. It’s really more of a three-year, $54 million contract, and the Bears have options at lower rates for each of the ensuing four years.

So if Cutler cannot stay healthy, does not improve or even regresses, the Bears can easily move on after 2016.

The Chiefs may also frontload Smith’s contract, giving them flexibility on how to proceed in the future with a good, but not excellent quarterback.

Having adopted the method Reid employed with the Packers and Eagles of stockpiling young quarterbacks, the Chiefs have two potential passers for the future with opposing attributes. Tyler Bray, a strong-armed, 6-6 quarterback with questionable maturity and football smarts, is in his second year, while rookie Aaron Murray has the college resume, but the SEC’s all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns may have too weak an arm to become an everyday starter.

Smith and Cutler represent the crux of the modern-day NFL. It’s easy to sacrifice much of your salary cap for Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Manning, but do you sign a deal that restricts the rest of your roster when your quarterback is upper tier, better than the available options — but not elite?

Having to make room for Smith and Justin Houston, also a free agent after the season, is a major reason why the Chiefs released Brandon Flowers, a legitimate shutdown cornerback in my opinion, though he struggled in 2013.

A Pro Bowler last year, Smith, who has indicated he wants to remain in Kansas City, has said he will no longer respond to media questions about his contract.

But reports have indicated the team and player remain far apart on a deal.

“These things take time,” Reid said. “You know how the game goes.”

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JFedotin

Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills. During his football playing days at Pembroke Hill (Mo.) School, Fedotin was known for his bad knees and even worse blocking.

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Are the Cowboys the worst team in the NFC?

Jerry Jones’ team may suffer through its roughest season since the Dave Campo era.

Last year the Cowboys had the NFL’s worst defense statistically. That unit also was the franchise’s worst historically, allowing the most yards, most passing yards and most first downs in team annals.

And this year’s D in Big

Jerry Jones’ team may suffer through its roughest season since the Dave Campo era.

Last year the Cowboys had the NFL’s worst defense statistically. That unit also was the franchise’s worst historically, allowing the most yards, most passing yards and most first downs in team annals.

And this year’s D in Big D looks to be even worse than the one that gave up 6,645 total yards — third most porous in NFL history behind only the 2012 Saints (7,042) and the 1981 Baltimore Colts (6,793).

Dallas lost its best pass rusher — defensive tackle Jason Hatcher — to its NFC East rival, the Redskins. Hatcher led the team with 11 sacks in 2013.

Dallas also lost its best defensive player in 2013 — linebacker Sean Lee — for the season with a torn ACL.

Sean LeeLosing Sean Lee to a knee injury was a huge blow to the Dallas defense.

The versatile linebacker, who could perfectly man the middle in the Cowboys’ 4-3 scheme, had 99 tackles and four interceptions last year.

The Cowboys’ best defensive player of the modern era — DeMarcus Ware — signed with the Broncos. Granted, Ware will turn 32 before the season, missed the most starts of his career last year and may not fit Dallas’ 4-3 defense as well as he did the 3-4. But the eventual Hall of Famer recorded 117 sacks while starting 140 games during his nine years with the team.

Because of these defections, a bad unit — one that allowed 388 first downs in 2013 (second worst all time behind the 406 given up by the 1981 Colts) — could be even more disastrous in 2014.

And that puts more pressure on Tony Romo, who is 34 and coming off his second back surgery in nine months.

His primary targets include wide receiver Dez Bryant, whose skills are off the charts but whose mercurial personality could make him difficult to depend on during hard times, and Jason Witten. The tight end remains a strong player, but Romo’s favorite receiver is 32 and had his least catches and yards last year since 2006.

Romo, himself, is a talented quarterback who sometimes gets a bad rap for his play in crunchtime and his 1-3 playoff record.

But his flaws — forcing the action by making ill-advised passes — could surface as he feels compelled to overcompensate for a defense that can’t stop anybody.

The NFC Least

Despite all of these issues, one thing that could aid the Cowboys is playing in the NFL’s worst division — the NFC East.

The Eagles are the favorite, but their defense, which ranked 29th in the NFL last year and allowed 6,304 yards, wasn’t much better than the Dallas D.

DeSean JacksonJackson may have left Philly, but he’s still hanging out in the NFC East.

Moreover, with an entire offseason to study it, other teams could have more success stopping Chip Kelly’s offense. That unit also may miss wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who stretched the field, giving the offense space to operate.

Jackson signed with the Redskins, the NFC East’s last place team in 2013. Like the aforementioned teams, Washington struggled on defense, allowing the second most points in the NFL.

The Redskins, though, are a hard team to predict. They have a new coach in Jay Gruden, and with another season removed from reconstructive knee surgery, will RG III resemble his 2012 form or is he simply a broken-down player?

The Giants are another perplexing team. Having won two Super Bowls in the last eight years, New York cannot be discounted. Those squads, however, excelled largely because of their fierce pass rush, which featured waves of players who could get to the quarterback.

But only Jason Pierre-Paul and Mathias Kiwanuka remain as key pass rushers from the 2011 championship team.

Having such weak teams in their division may help the Cowboys pad their win total.

Other NFC foes

The rest of the NFC, though, remains stout.

With the powerhouse Seahawks and 49ers, the NFC West is the best division from top to bottom. The Rams may have the league’s best defensive line, and the Cardinals finished 10-6 last year.

The NFC South should be improved, too. Tampa Bay had one of the more active offseasons, hiring a new coach in Lovie Smith and adding free agents, including defensive end Michael Johnson and cornerback Alterraun Verner. They also drafted wide receiver Mike Evans and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins to help the passing game.

The Falcons could be due for a bounce-back year, considering much of their struggles last year were because of injuries to — among others — Julio Jones, Roddy White and Kroy Biermman.

So, the inglorious distinction of worst NFC team could come down to the NFC East and NFC North cellar dwellers. The latter is likely the Vikings. Possessing a strong defense for years, Minnesota no longer has the Williams Wall or Jared Allen on the defensive line.

The success of this year’s team under new coach Mike Zimmer could hinge on the quarterback play, and that position may be patrolled by rookie Teddy Bridgewater.

The Cowboys hope their newcomers, including another Demarcus — second-round draft pick Demarcus Lawrence from Boise State who was selected to help replace Ware on the edge — can produce. Linebacker Justin Durant and defensive tackle Henry Melton were solid pickups from NFC North teams.

Melton, a Dallas native and former Longhorn, made the Pro Bowl in 2012 and perfectly fits the 4-3 defense as an interior lineman if he can recover from his season-ending torn ACL in 2013.

If Melton returns to form, perhaps it will lift a Cowboys roster, which looks very bleak on paper.

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JFedotin

Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills. During his football playing days at Pembroke Hill (Mo.) School, Fedotin was known for his bad knees and even worse blocking. 

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Inside Chad Johnson’s foray into the CFL

After not playing professional football since 2012, Chad Johnson was ecstatic to be with the Alouettes for Montreal’s first day of April minicamp in Vero Beach, Florida.

“I’m going to start crying,” he told the team.

Johnson’s emotions had boiled over as he embarked on one of football’s more interesting comebacks.

After not playing professional football since 2012, Chad Johnson was ecstatic to be with the Alouettes for Montreal’s first day of April minicamp in Vero Beach, Florida.

“I’m going to start crying,” he told the team.

Johnson’s emotions had boiled over as he embarked on one of football’s more interesting comebacks.

Three months later, Johnson, who missed the initial game because of an ankle injury, played in his first Canadian Football League contest. He caught one pass for 13 yards from quarterback Troy Smith (the former Heisman Trophy winner) during the Alouettes’ 26-10 loss to the Ottawa RedBlacks in Montreal’s preseason finale on Friday.

Slated to start at wide receiver for the Alouettes, the six-time Pro Bowler and 11-year veteran totaled 766 catches for 11,059 yards and 67 touchdowns in the NFL, though he managed just 67 and 15 receptions, respectively, in his last two regular seasons (2010 with the Bengals and 2011 with the Patriots).

The production of wide receivers in their 30s usually tapers off in such a way because they have lost a step.

“Is he fast enough? Absolutely,” said Jim Popp, Alouettes vice president, general manager and director of football operations.

According to Popp, Johnson still possesses a nice hesitation move — where he acts like he’s blocking before exploding into his route — and that the CFL’s rules for wide receivers — like a running start to the line of scrimmage and the ability to move laterally once there — will help the 36 year old.

“Chad Johnson’s crafty,” Popp told NFP. “He’s still very elusive.”

The move from NFL star to CFL player, though, is rare.

Chad JohnsonJohnson’s last 1,000-yard NFL season came in 2009 with Cincinnati.

Running back Ricky Williams played for the Toronto Argonauts when he was suspended from the NFL for a year. Other notable players that joined the CFL following NFL stints include wide receiver Andre Rison, defensive end Mark Gastineau and quarterbacks Vince Ferragamo and Doug Flutie.

“There hasn’t been a great (rate of) success,” Popp said, “when you say ‘a superstar type of person’ that has been in the NFL.”

But Montreal has offered second chances to NFL players before — most notably to running back Lawrence Phillips, who helped the franchise win the Grey Cup in 2002.

The Alouettes, one of the CFL’s powerhouse franchises, have made eight Grey Cup appearances in the 21st century. And they insist the Johnson signing is to help them win — not to boost ticket sales or draw international attention.

“We do not bring people here for publicity stunts,” Popp said.

The headline-grabbing acquisition, though, came about because of some timely networking.

Johnson was working out with Hall of Fame wide receiver Cris Carter, whose son Duron plays for Montreal, in Florida. Cris Carter raved about Johnson to Popp and sent video of his workouts to the general manager, who then invited Johnson to the Alouettes’ three-day minicamp.

Johnson impressed the Alouettes, who needed a receiver after longtime star Jamel Richardson was struggling to come back from torn knee ligaments, at the minicamp.

“We were looking for the best receiver we could get,” Popp said. “(Johnson’s) been very vocal about wanting to play, and obviously it wasn’t happening back in the NFL.”

In his new league, he will be called neither Ochocino nor Huit Cinq — as some French-Canadians wanted.

“He changed his name back,” Popp said. “He made it clear to people and fans that he’s Chad Johnson now.”

Johnson, though, still wears No. 85, and The Montreal Gazette reported that he’s supposed to earn $85, 000.

Popp declined to confirm that sum, only saying that Johnson told him: “Whatever helps you guys with your cap because I don’t need money.”

“Money was not an issue,” Popp said. “He just wanted to be part of a team.”

Johnson has been a team-first guy so far without any of his famously flamboyant showboating. His creativity has been relegated to his active Twitter account and engaging interviews, where he explained to reporters his bucket-list goal of swimming with killer whales.

But the opportunity exists for Johnson to accentuate his touchdowns in imaginative ways when the Alouettes open their regular season Saturday against the Calgary Stampeders.

The CFL does not allow players to use props after touchdowns (like how Johnson once used an end-zone pylon to “putt” a football). However, group celebrations and creativity are encouraged by the CFL.

On the field, Johnson was described as having a strong work ethic, including his willingness to block, and being in great shape — partly due to playing a lot of soccer during the offseason.

“The thing I notice with Chad is his drive to be the best,” Popp said. “He wants to prove that he can still play football.”

Johnson’s last opportunity at playing professional football came with the Dolphins. But his hometown team released him in August of 2012, a day after his arrest on domestic battery charges, ending his NFL career.

“We’re really big about cleaning the slate,” Popp said. “We believe in giving people second chances.”

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JFedotin

Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills. During his football playing days at Pembroke Hill (Mo.) School, Fedotin was known for his bad knees and even worse blocking. 

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Canada’s Chief export

During the Chiefs’ offseason practices, rookie offensive lineman Laurent Duvernay-Tardif showed flashes of promise but also that he had plenty to learn.

His difficulty in adjusting to the NFL game makes sense, considering the Chiefs selected Duvernay-Tardif in the sixth round (200th overall) of the 2014 NFL Draft after he played just two

During the Chiefs’ offseason practices, rookie offensive lineman Laurent Duvernay-Tardif showed flashes of promise but also that he had plenty to learn.

His difficulty in adjusting to the NFL game makes sense, considering the Chiefs selected Duvernay-Tardif in the sixth round (200th overall) of the 2014 NFL Draft after he played just two years of offensive line for McGill University in Montreal, Quebec.

“We understood that this was going to be a jump for him,” said head coach Andy Reid during the Chiefs’ rookie minicamp. “A lot of this was new for Larry.”

A player from the Canadian college ranks is relatively new for the NFL, too.

If Duvernay-Tardif’s technique catches up to his athleticism and tenacity, he could become one of the most accomplished players from Canada’s football system.

Bears defensive lineman Israel Idonije moved from Nigeria to Canada at the age of four and played collegiately at the University of the Manitoba. Considered by many as the best product from a Canadian college, Idonije has started 50 games and recorded 29 sacks and 40 tackles-for-loss during his 10 years in the NFL.

Saints defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, who had 4.5 sacks in his second NFL year in 2013, went to high school in California but spent two years at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan.

Browns receiver Nate Burleson was born in Calgary, Alberta before moving to the U.S.; Jamaican-born Broncos lineman Orlando Franklin was raised in Toronto, Ontario before attending Miami [Fla.] and Seahawks tight end Luke Willson and Steelers kicker Shaun Suisham went to high school in Ontario before attending Rice and Bowling Green, respectively.

Duvernay-Tardif, who speaks French as his first language and learned English four years ago, also could become the third player from McGill to play in the NFL. Jacksonville selected defensive tackle Randy Chevrier in the seventh round of the 2001 NFL Draft. Long snapper J.P. Darche played for the Seahawks and Chiefs.

To join that group, Duvernay-Tardif must make the transition from Canadian college football to American professional football.

“It’s quite different than what I’m used to,” Duvernay-Tardif said. “I’m smart enough. I think I’m going to be able to learn.”

Laurent Duvernay TardifDuvernay-Tardif was selected by Kansas City with the 24th pick of the sixth round.

Indeed he is a quick study. The lineman had a 3.9 GPA at McGill — one of Canada’s most esteemed institutions — and the third-year medical student likely will become a doctor one day.

The McGill coaching staff was flexible, accommodating his rigorous academic course load, which included full-time rotations at a hospital.

Now the focus is on football, where the 6-5 Duvernay-Tardif must adapt to American rules. Canadians, for example, play with 12 men on each side.

A mauling run blocker at McGill, Duvernay-Tardif displayed an aggressive demeanor after moving from the defensive to offensive line. He also has good athleticism. At his pro day, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.94 seconds and reached 31.5 inches on the vertical jump.

“Those are things you like to work with on the offensive line,” Reid said. “Physically we liked the things we saw.”

After cutting weight for the NFL Combine, Duvernay-Tardif said he was about 305 pounds, but he expects to add bulk and strength. That shouldn’t be a problem as he went from a 250-pound three-technique defensive tackle as a freshman to a 315-pound tackle as an upperclassman.

His biggest improvement, however, must involve his fundamentals. At times he took poor angles, lunged too aggressively and lost his position as a result.

“I have a lot to learn on the technique side, and my learning curve is fairly big,” he said. “But I think I’m athletic and I go after it when I play.”

Duvernay-Tardif played at right tackle and left guard during the rookie minicamp, and the 23 year old said he’s most comfortable on the interior and the left side at this point.

The Chiefs could use the help from their new addition.

They have holes on the offensive line, having lost left tackle Branden Albert, a 2013 Pro Bowler, and right guard Jon Asamoah — who started a combined 21 games last year — along with versatile backup, Geoff Schwartz, who started seven games at right and left guard.

If an NFL career, though, doesn’t pan out, Duvernay-Tardif has a wonderful backup profession.

“Football and medicine,” he said, “those are my two real passions.”

During the spring he did a rotation in the neonatal intensive care unit. On the second day of the NFL Draft, he was called to the hospital to help with an emergency C-section of twins.

So, if an NFL team had drafted him earlier than expected, he would have been a little too preoccupied to answer the phone.

“Yeah, that would be really funny,” he said.

The Chiefs, though, view their new offensive lineman as a rookie with serious potential.

“It’s going to take some time, but he’s very intelligent. He’s a hard worker. It looks like he’s a real tough kid,” Reid said. “That’s a position you can develop.”

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JFedotin

Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills. During his football playing days at Pembroke Hill (Mo.) School, Fedotin was known for his bad knees and even worse blocking. 

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Will the Panthers take a step back?

In the topsy-turvy NFL, division winners from the previous year can end up in the cellar the next.

After AFC South-winning Houston went 12-4 in 2012, it fell to a last-place, 2-14 record in 2013. The Redskins similarly dropped from first place at 10-6 to 3-13 and the bottom of the 2013 NFC

In the topsy-turvy NFL, division winners from the previous year can end up in the cellar the next.

After AFC South-winning Houston went 12-4 in 2012, it fell to a last-place, 2-14 record in 2013. The Redskins similarly dropped from first place at 10-6 to 3-13 and the bottom of the 2013 NFC East; the Falcons descended from 13-3 to 4-12.

The cap-strapped Panthers, 12-4 and atop the NFC South last year, may suffer the same fate this season.

Carolina, which started 2014 about $16 million over the salary cap, simply lost much more than it gained over the offseason — particularly in the receiver department.

Though that unit was never a strength, it lost its top four wide receivers — Steve Smith (to the Ravens), Brandon LaFell (Patriots), Ted Ginn Jr. (Cardinals) and Domenik Hixon (Bears) — from last year.

That means the Panthers, a team that has never reached the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, must replace a cumulative total of 156 receptions, 1,983 yards and 15 touchdowns.

To do so Carolina is relying on a fairly anonymous bunch.

It added Jerricho Cotchery from the Steelers, Tiquan Underwood (Buccaneers) and Jason Avant (Eagles). Holdovers Marvin McNutt and Tavarres King — neither of whom have caught an NFL pass — also could factor into the equation.

First-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin must produce early. He caught the game-winning touchdown in the 2014 BCS National Championship and had 54 receptions for 1,011 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. He has mammoth size — 6-5, 240 pounds — but is raw.

Offensive line and secondary issues

The Panthers also lost Jordan Gross, Cam Newton’s blind-side tackle, to retirement. The 2013 Pro Bowler started 167 games during his 11 years. The only team he’s ever been with did not address offensive tackle in free agency or the draft.

Cam NewtonNewton could come under heavy fire due to a young and inexperienced offensive line.

As a result either Nate Chandler, a 2012 undrafted free agent, or Byron Bell, a 2011 undrafted free agent, will start at left tackle. They are part of a very unheralded group, which likely will have Amini Silatolu at left guard, Garry Williams at right guard and Bell or Chandler at right tackle alongside seven-year veteran center, Ryan Kalil. (Guard Trai Turner was drafted out of LSU in the third round.)

Aside from Kalil, the presumed 2014 Panthers O-line starters only started a collective total of 27 games last year.

The front seven remains the strength of the team, but the defensive backfield suffered two major defections in free agency, which could hinder that unit. Two quality players — cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and safety Mike Mitchell — moved on, signing with the Vikings and Steelers, respectively.

Mitchell was a ballhawk and a playmaker last year, recording 10 passes defended, four interceptions, four sacks and two forced fumbles. Munnerlyn also changed games with three sacks, 12 passes defended and two pick-6s, accounting for the fourth and fifth touchdowns of his career.

Carolina replaced them with Thomas DeCoud, an underrated safety from the Falcons, though he didn’t have any interceptions last year, and Cardinals cornerback Antoine Cason, who had two interceptions and two fumble recoveries in 2013.

Quintin Mikell and Drayton Florence — both starters last year — remain unsigned, but Carolina may choose to go with 2014 draft picks Tre Boston, a strong safety selected in the fourth round, and Bene Benwikere, a cornerback selected in the fifth round, instead.

A beefed up NFC South

While Carolina lost valuable starters, the rest of the division seems to have improved.

Tampa Bay had one of the more active offseasons, hiring a new coach in Lovie Smith and adding free agents, including defensive end Michael Johnson, defensive tackle Clinton McDonald, cornerback Alterraun Verner and offensive linemen Anthony Collins and Evan Deitrich-Smith.

Mike EvansTampa got even bigger at the wide receiver position with the addition of Texas A&M’s Mike Evans (left).

The Bucs drafted two huge targets — 6-4 3/4, 231-pound receiver Mike Evans and 6-5 1/2, 262-pound tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins — in the first two rounds. They should nicely complement 6-5, 230-pound wide receiver Vincent Jackson.

The Falcons could be due for a bounce-back year, considering much of their struggles last year were injury-related.

Atlanta lost wide receiver Julio Jones (broken foot) for the season, and wide receiver Roddy White missed three weeks with a hamstring injury, an ailment that also sidelined running back Steven Jackson for six weeks. Offensive tackle Sam Baker missed five weeks before eventually going on injured reserve with a knee injury.

On the defensive side of the ball, defensive lineman Kroy Biermann was lost for the entire season with a torn Achilles, and the team’s best linebacker, Sean Weatherspoon, missed nine games with foot and knee injuries.

The Saints, who split their two games with the Panthers last year, will always be a tough out as long as Drew Brees is behind center.

Bad offseason

Two of the Panthers’ best and most valuable players have endured a rough path, heading into the 2014 campaign.

After having the highest completion percentage (61.7) and most touchdowns (24) — and consequently the highest rating (88.8) — of his career last year, Newton underwent ligament surgery on his left ankle on March 18.

At the time of his surgery, it was estimated to take about four months to recover. So although Newton should be back in plenty of time for training camp, it makes for a less than ideal situation for a guy needing to become comfortable with all of his new targets.

Giants quarterback Eli Manning also endured offseason ankle surgery — though it was deemed a less serious injury — and offseason clean-ups aren’t out of the ordinary, but it could potentially be more problematic for a player like Newton, who relies on his mobility and scrambling.

Another Panthers pillar, 25-year-old defensive end Greg Hardy, is slated to make $13.1 million this season (after signing the franchise tag) unless he negotiates a long-term deal with the team. Retaining Hardy was important, considering he led the team and finished third in the NFL with 15 sacks last season.

Hardy, however, could miss time this season after being charged with assault. Hardy’s girlfriend, Nicole Holder, has accused him of throwing her onto a couch covered in guns, strangling her and threatening to shoot her.

If any of those charges ring true, expect NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to come down on Hardy.

That would only add to the Panthers’ difficult quest of repeating as NFC South champions.

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JFedotin

Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills. During his football playing days at Pembroke Hill (Mo.) School, Fedotin was known for his bad knees and even worse blocking. 

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Inside the curious draft of the Titans

During the first two days of the 2014 NFL Draft, the Titans had one of the more peculiar strategies, selecting one player at a position at which they were stacked and another where they had a glaring need.

With the 10th overall pick, Tennessee selected Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan, who mans a spot

During the first two days of the 2014 NFL Draft, the Titans had one of the more peculiar strategies, selecting one player at a position at which they were stacked and another where they had a glaring need.

With the 10th overall pick, Tennessee selected Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan, who mans a spot where the Titans are loaded.

Michael Roos is one of the better NFL left tackles, having started every Titans game except for one during his nine years. He anchored a 2013 unit that was tied for the ninth fewest sacks allowed.

Tennessee also signed tackle Michael Oher during the offseason to a four-year, $20-million contract.

On the interior last year, the Titans selected guard Chance Warmack with the 10th overall pick and signed guard Andy Levitre to a six-year, $46.8 million contract with $13 million guaranteed.

Although that seemingly creates a huge logjam along the offensive line for a team with many other holes, general manager Ruston Webster said that Lewan was simply too talented a player — at too important of a position — to pass up.

“There’s certain things you have to have to build a team long term. One of the things is stability in the offensive line, specifically left tackle,” Webster said. “We’ve all been with teams where we didn’t have a left tackle, and it’s almost like you can’t run your offense.”

Perhaps Webster wanted a replacement for Roos, who is 31 — young for an offensive lineman — but has a contract that expires after the 2014 season.

As far as Oher’s future, the player — about whom The Blind Side was based — seems destined for a different role than the one for which he gained cinematic fame. After actually playing right tackle with the Ravens (rather than protecting quarterback Joe Flacco’s blind side), the Tennessee native may even move to guard for the Titans.

Where does that leave Lewan?

He will not start ahead of Oher on the right side (at least initially), playing back-up left tackle at first, though the Titans will test Lewan’s versatility during the rookie minicamp.

“We’ll start moving him around,” head coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “We’re going to play him at different spots, get him reps, kind of get him started that way to see what he can do.”

Taylor LewanUS PRESSWIRELewan, Tennessee’s first round selection, will have to compete with veterans Michael Roos and Michael Oher for playing time.

With Oher, Roos and Lewan at tackle, the offseason battles at the tackle position should be fierce.

“I’m coming in here with the idea to compete and win a job,” Lewan said. “I know there are two tackles that are really good players and well-established, but I’m here to play ball.”

Lewan has reason to be confident.

He is viewed as an elite prospect — perhaps more talented than Eric Fisher or Luke Joeckel, the players selected first and second overall, respectively, in the 2013 draft.

Lewan has a unique blend of size, speed and athleticism. The 6-7, 309-pounder recorded the best 40-time (4.79) and broad jump (9’9”) of any offensive lineman at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine.

He also has a nasty streak — reminiscent of Jaguars tackle Tony Boselli — which scouts love to see in their linemen.

But Lewan is perhaps too aggressive at times. He has a pending aggravated assault charge, among other off-the-field incidents.

Though the Titans clearly valued talent over need in the first round with Lewan, they reversed course in the second round, selecting Bishop Sankey at running back, where Tennessee had to replace Chris Johnson, who signed with the Jets.

“Definitely, we needed a running back,” Webster said. “That is what we were going to target.”

The Titans selected Sankey with the 54th overall selection after swapping second-round picks with the Eagles and acquiring their fourth-round pick. (The Titans did not have a third-round pick, having traded the pick last year as an effort to move up for wide receiver Justin Hunter.)

As the 22nd pick in the second round, Sankey became the first running back chosen in the 2014 NFL Draft.

“It really is a true blessing just to be the first running back taken,” he said.

After leaving Washington as a junior, the 5-9½ 209-pounder impressively ran the 40 in 4.49 seconds and bench pressed 225 pounds 26 times at the Combine, where Lewan also wowed.

The Titans chose Sankey over other running back prospects like Carlos Hyde and Jeremy Hill, praising Sankey’s versatility and ability to play all three downs.

“He can run inside and can run outside. He can get outside, he can run through guys and he can break the long runs,” said Titans area scout Marv Suderland. “He has great hands out of the backfield and he is a good blocker.”

Suderland, who used to work for the Giants, compared Sankey to Tiki Barber —except with better ball security. Because of his shiftiness, Sankey also has drawn comparisons to Giovanni Bernard, the first running back taken in the 2013 draft.

With his nimbleness and ability in the passing game, Sankey should serve as a nice complement to Shonn Greene, more of a straight-ahead power runner.

Sankey also earned the tough yards at Washington, where he set a UW single-season rushing mark with 1,870 yards.

That is the same school where Titans quarterback Jake Locker starred, though their college careers did not overlap.

“It’s awesome just to have a fellow U-Dub Husky there,” Sankey said, “and I can’t wait to be playing with him.”

However, the long-term future of his fellow U-Dub Husky remains up in the air. Entering his fourth year, Locker must prove himself.

And in the second day of the draft, the Titans used their final pick on LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger.

Ending the draft by going for need, Tennessee traded up to select the player who could potentially serve as Locker’s replacement.

“Quarterback was a position that we wanted to take in the draft,” Webster said. “So it made sense to do it. We felt like it was kind of a small risk.”

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JFedotin

Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills. During his football playing days at Pembroke Hill (Mo.) School, Fedotin was known for his bad knees and even worse blocking. 

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Did the NFL lie about why it pushed the draft to May?

Normally, at this time you’d be scouring the Internet for draft grades of your favorite team. Instead the NFL pushed back this year’s NFL Draft two weeks later and into May.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said that the 2014 NFL Draft was moved because of a scheduling conflict at New York’s Radio City

Normally, at this time you’d be scouring the Internet for draft grades of your favorite team. Instead the NFL pushed back this year’s NFL Draft two weeks later and into May.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said that the 2014 NFL Draft was moved because of a scheduling conflict at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, which hosts the draft.

“At this late stage, for us to do it the right way,” Goodell told ESPN.com last year, “we don’t see having any choice but to move the date.”

The NFL reaffirmed to NFP last week that a Radio City show was the reason for pushing back the draft to May 8-10.

But that show, Hearts and Lights, was recently postponed until 2015 for what were deemed “production issues,” according to someone at MSG Entertainment, who scoffed at the notion of its show causing the scheduling change to this year’s draft.

Hearts and Lights — a Rockettes dance-based production that tells the story of two teenage cousins traversing the sights of New York while trying to decipher their grandmother’s past — was slated to run 59 times from March 27 to May 4.

Asked if the NFL was upset that the very program that forced the draft to May was postponed, a league spokesman declined comment.

Although Radio City could potentially make more money by hosting its own production for five weeks rather than a three-day event, the NFL — with about $10 billion in revenue — would seemingly have the power to get its way, and the draft draws enormous ratings.

ESPN’s coverage of the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft averaged 6.2 million viewers, according to the Nielsen Company, and that doesn’t even include NFL Network numbers.

Rather than being forced to May by a Rockettes show, it seems plausible that the NFL wanted to spread out the NFL calendar.

NFL DraftNew York City has hosted every NFL draft since 1965.

With the Super Bowl and NFL Scouting Combine in February, the hot stove of free agency in March, the schedule release in April, the draft in May, training camp in July and preseason in August, June is really the only month without major football news, and even that has minicamps.

But if reducing the NFL “offseason” was the reason for the change, one would think the NFL would’ve stated so.

And if the Hearts and Lights show wasn’t the true motive for the May draft, coming up with such a bizarre excuse would seem like a bad public relations move for a league known to be incredibly savvy in that area. (Goodell has his roots in PR.)

Another possible incentive to have the draft in May is May Sweeps, whose numbers are crucial to advertisers. As a result companies could be willing to spend even more money to run their commercials on ESPN and NFL Network.

Whatever the reason for having the draft in May, it could have negative consequences:

• Paranoid coaches worry that their rookies will be affected. With less time before training camp and the regular season to learn the schemes and acclimate themselves to the NFL, first-year players could make less of an impact — or so some teams might fear.

• Given the already overly extensive and thorough draft research that has taken place, additional weeks could result in overkill. One prominent agent told The Charlotte Observer that NFL teams would overthink things to such an extent that they would likely suffer paralysis by analysis where they talk themselves out of a prospect.

• The true losers of a potential move and the ever-shortening time frame are the coaches, scouts and club officials. Already overworked in the 24/7 league, they have even less vacation time in May and June — traditionally a slow time in the NFL calendar.

Having the NFL Draft in May is not unprecedented. The entire 1984 draft took place in May, though it was not the major event that it is today.

But with Hearts and Lights slated to run in spring of 2015, the NFL likely will face the April/May dilemma next year.

Although the NFL needs union approval in order to change the start of the league year, Goodell has the power to alter the dates for the draft and combine without consulting the players’ union.

NFP also has learned that it remains unclear where the draft will take place in 2015. Even the setting of New York, which has hosted the draft in every year of the Super Bowl era, is up in the air. (The last year the draft was outside of the Big Apple was in 1964 in Chicago.)

One thing the league assured NFP is that the 10-minute, seven-minute and five-minute time limits for rounds one, two and three-seven, respectively, will remain unchanged.

Also don’t look for the league to go back to the two-day, Saturday-Sunday format. While entering the fifth year of the primetime Thursday start, television ratings, Internet page views, numbers of players on hand and sponsorship involvement have increased.

If anything, the NFL might extend the days of the draft, as rumors have swirled it could make the draft a four-day event.

Only time will tell whether the NFL Draft will return to April in 2015 or whether the leggy Rockettes will once again kick it to May.

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JFedotin

Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills. During his football playing days at Pembroke Hill (Mo.) School, Fedotin was known for his bad knees and even worse blocking. 

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Woeful drafts lead to Raiders’ losing ways

When Nnamdi Asomugha — who retired just after Christmas — left the game, so went the Raiders’ last good first-round draft pick (2003).

While passing on the likes of Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and Earl Thomas from 2004 to 2012, the Raiders accumulated an awful 49-111 record.

When Nnamdi Asomugha — who retired just after Christmas — left the game, so went the Raiders’ last good first-round draft pick (2003).

While passing on the likes of Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and Earl Thomas from 2004 to 2012, the Raiders accumulated an awful 49-111 record.

The jury’s still out on the first first-round pick of general manager Reggie McKenzie’s tenure, D. J. Hayden, a talented but injury-prone cornerback who started just two of the eight contests he played in his rookie year of 2013.

But perhaps when Oakland chooses 5th overall in the 2014 draft on May 8, McKenzie, who learned the tricks of the trade while working with John Schneider, Ted Thompson and Ron Wolf in Green Bay, can reverse the Raiders’ history of poor first-round selections.

2004

First-round pick (2nd overall): Offensive lineman Robert Gallery

Larry FitzgeraldAll Larry Fitzgerald has done since entering the league is be named to eight Pro Bowls.

Analysis: After struggling so badly at left tackle that fans derisively chanted “Manda-rich, Manda-rich,” Gallery fared better when moved to guard where he started 62 games from 2007 to 2011. However, as a result of the Gallery selection, the Raiders missed out on several stars in one of the better quarterback drafts of all time.

Raiders could have selected: wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald (3rd), quarterback Philip Rivers (4th), cornerback DeAngelo Hall (8th), cornerback Dunta Robinson (10th), quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (11th), linebacker Jonathan Vilma (12th), defensive lineman Vince Wilfork (21st).

2005

First-round pick (23rd overall): Cornerback Fabian Washington

Analysis: Washington wasn’t a bad pick. He started 28 games for the Raiders and then 30 for the Ravens, but what makes this choice glaring is who was selected with the very next pick — quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

Could have selected: Rodgers (24th), wide receiver Roddy White (27th), tight end Heath Miller (30th), guard Logan Mankins (32nd).

2006

First-round pick (7th overall): Defensive back Michael Huff

Analysis: Although Huff started 94 games, he was a cornerback-safety tweener. After never finding his niche in Oakland, the Ravens acquired him before releasing him during the middle of last season. No team has signed him for the 2014 campaign.

Could have selected: safety Donte Whitner (8th), quarterback Jay Cutler (11th), defensive lineman Haloti Ngata (12th), linebacker Chad Greenway (17th), linebacker Tamba Hali (20th), cornerback Johnathan Joseph (24th), center Nick Mangold (29th).

2007

First-round pick (1st overall): Quarterback JaMarcus Russell

JaMarcus RussellRussell will go down in history as one of the greatest draft busts of all time.

Analysis: Considered the biggest draft bust of all time, Russell completed 52.1 percent of his career passes for a cumulative quarterback rating of 65.2. On and off the field, he was so bad that he has not even received a second chance with another NFL team (unlike busts like Tim Couch or Ryan Leaf).

Could have selected: wide receiver Calvin Johnson (2nd), tackle Joe Thomas (3rd), running back Adrian Peterson (7th), linebacker Patrick Willis (11th), running back Marshawn Lynch (12th).

2008

First-round pick (4th overall): Running back Darren McFadden

Analysis: McFadden is a talented player who has twice averaged more than five yards per carry for a season, but the injury-prone back lacks durability. The former Arkansas star has only played in 26 of his 48 games the last three years.

Could have selected: linebacker Jerod Mayo (10th), tackle Ryan Clady (12th), tackle Branden Albert (15th), cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (16th), quarterback Joe Flacco (18th), cornerback Aqib Talib (20th), running back Chris Johnson (24th), tackle Duane Brown (26th).

2009

First-round pick (7th overall): Wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey

Analysis: A major reach this high in the draft, Heyward-Bey was a much-maligned pick, but he did post 975 receiving yards in 2011. Signed by the Colts before the 2013 season, the burner is an okay player but is still plagued by poor hands.

Could have selected: defensive lineman B.J. Raji (8th), wide receiver Michael Crabtree (10th), running back Knowshon Moreno (12th), linebacker Brian Orakpo (13th), linebacker Brian Cushing (15th), wide receiver Jeremy Maclin (19th), center Alex Mack (21st), cornerback Vontae Davis (26th), linebacker Clay Matthews (26th), wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (29th).

2010

First-round pick (8th overall): Linebacker Rolando McClain

Earl ThomasThomas played a big role in Seattle’s 2013 Super Bowl run.

Analysis: McClain’s short career featured a litany of injuries and arrests, and he was suspended two games by the Raiders in 2012. After the Ravens signed him in 2013, McClain retired at the age of 23 so that he could get his personal life together.

Could have selected: running back C.J. Spiller (9th), safety Earl Thomas (14th), defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul (15th), wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (22nd), wide receiver Dez Bryant (24th).

2011

First-round pick: None

Analysis: The Raiders did not have a selection after trading a first-round pick in 2011 for Patriots defensive lineman Richard Seymour. During four years in Oakland, Seymour was solid, starting 52 games and recording 18.5 sacks, but the Raiders never posted a winning record during the veteran’s tenure.

Meanwhile, the Patriots selected Nate Solder, who has started 31 games at left tackle the last two seasons. Solder could have helped Oakland solidify its offensive line for the next decade.

2012

First-round pick: None

Analysis: The Raiders did not have a selection after trading a first-round pick in 2012 and a second-round pick in 2013 for Carson Palmer.

With the 2012 first-round pick, the Bengals selected Dre Kirkpatrick, a talented cornerback who has battled knee injuries. Cincinnati spent the 2013 second-round pick (37th overall) on running back Giovanni Bernard, one of the NFL’s most electrifying rookies last year.

Meanwhile, Palmer threw 30 interceptions and never completed more than 61.1 percent of his passes during his two years in Oakland before the Raiders traded him to Arizona.

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JFedotin

Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills. During his football playing days at Pembroke Hill (Mo.) School, Fedotin was known for his bad knees and even worse blocking. 

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A Texans draft lesson

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch called it the “dumbest move in the history of the NFL draft,” and The Arizona Republic deemed it “a colossal mistake.”

“The decision boggles the mind,” wrote ESPN.com’s Gene Wojciechowski. “(Houston) got sloppy drunk on ‘measureables’ and potential rather than actual production.”

Even the team’s hometown paper, the

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch called it the “dumbest move in the history of the NFL draft,” and The Arizona Republic deemed it “a colossal mistake.”

“The decision boggles the mind,” wrote ESPN.com’s Gene Wojciechowski. “(Houston) got sloppy drunk on ‘measureables’ and potential rather than actual production.”

Even the team’s hometown paper, the Houston Chronicle ran an editorial cartoon depicting owner Bob McNair, head coach Gary Kubiak and senior vice president/general manager Charley Casserly as dumb, dumber and dumbest.

When the Texans last had the No. 1 overall pick in 2006, they chose fairly obscure North Carolina State defensive end Mario Williams over Reggie Bush, the dynamic Heisman Trophy-winning running back, and Vince Young, the hometown hero who had just quarterbacked Texas to the national title in one of the most thrilling championship games of all time.

Fans in attendance at the 2006 NFL Draft booed Williams as he stood on the Radio City Music Hall podium. Others chanted, “over-rated.”

Almost a decade later and with the Texans selecting No. 1 overall again, does Casserly, having clearly selected the right guy despite the vehement objections from fans and media alike, now feel vindicated?

“We don’t even think about things like that, to be honest with you. You make a decision and move onto your next one. You never look back,” Casserly said. “It’s the old line that if, ‘you’re listening to the fans, you’re going to be sitting with them pretty soon.’”

Casserly deflected praise, but he has reason to crow. His choice was far and away the correct one.

Williams, a three-time Pro Bowler, has 76.5 career sacks in eight seasons. Bush has only surpassed 1,000 rushing yards twice and never made a Pro Bowl, and Young, who was rumored to be suicidal and bankrupt at various times, has not played in an NFL game since 2011.

For Casserly and the Texans, the decision of who to spend $9 million on came down to Williams and Bush, a less complete player despite his prodigious talent.

Vince YoungICONDespite what the fans wanted, Vince Young was never in the discussion back in 2006.

“I thought (Bush) was a part-time role player — but good at what he would do,” said Casserly, now an NFL Network analyst. “I didn’t see him as a guy who would be a starting running back, 60 plays a game.”

Young was never a serious candidate to be drafted first overall. The Texans’ reluctance did not involve concerns over his character but his ability to thrive as a dropback passer in a pro-style NFL offense.

“Vince Young was never in the discussion,” Casserly said. “I just didn’t feel Young was going to be an NFL quarterback.”

Instead Williams, a 6-7, 295-pounder who ran a 4.7. 40, graded out as the best defensive end — along with Julius Peppers — Casserly scouted in the last 10 to 15 years. A good citizen without health issues, Williams could stuff the run or rush the passer.

“Mario Williams was a complete player,” Casserly said.

Jadeveon Clowney has more natural talent than Williams, according to Casserly, but lacks his consistency, work habits and commitment to football.

Despite Clowney having the “best NFL potential” of the 2014 prospects available for the Texans, Casserly said questions also remain on how the defensive star would fit into Houston’s 3-4 scheme, where he would have to play as a stand-up linebacker.

For the No. 1 overall pick in 2014, Casserly also lauded offensive tackle Greg Robinson and linebacker Khalil Mack but said that Blake Bortles would be the best passer for Houston.

He praised Bortles’ smarts, size and strong arm, noting that Teddy Bridgewater is more consistent right now while Bortles has more upside and ability to make plays.

But as an overall draft strategy, Casserly suggests the Texans select the best player overall regardless of their depth chart and, of course, ignore what is said on the outside just as he did in 2006.

“If you force a need, you probably will regret it at some point,” he said. “Public pressure should mean nothing to you.”

The media didn’t rattle Casserly, who only read the clippings the Texans distributed. He was too busy to scour the Internet, listen to talk radio or watch sports shows.

“If you’re doing all those things,” Casserly said, “you’re not doing your job.”

Ignoring the many naysayers, he shrewdly executed his duties and made the correct call by choosing Williams instead of Bush or Young.

“Ultimately it was my responsibility to get it right,” Casserly said. “But I can’t emphasize this enough — it was a collaborative effort.”

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JFedotin

Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills. During his football playing days at Pembroke Hill (Mo.) School, Fedotin was known for his bad knees and even worse blocking. 

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Why Devin Hester would fit in K.C.

With his eyes watering and a White Sox cap resting over his head, Devin Hester stood in front of his locker after the Week 17 loss to the Packers.

His emotion was not only a result of the Bears losing to their rival in heartbreaking fashion — a TD pass with 38 seconds

With his eyes watering and a White Sox cap resting over his head, Devin Hester stood in front of his locker after the Week 17 loss to the Packers.

His emotion was not only a result of the Bears losing to their rival in heartbreaking fashion — a TD pass with 38 seconds left, costing them a playoff berth — but also because he knew his future in Chicago remained in doubt.

“I want to retire as a Bear,” Hester told NFP. “But at the same time, this is a business … I know how this business works.”

On March 6 the Bears announced they would not re-sign the franchise’s all-time leader in total return touchdowns, punt return touchdowns, punt return yards and kickoff return yards.

Although Hester made it clear that he wanted to stay with the Bears, he said if that was not possible he “most definitely” would consider joining one of his two former coaches, Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith, Hester’s head coach from 2006 to 2012, or Chiefs special teams coordinator Dave Toub, his special teams coach from 2006 to 2012.

Devin HesterHester is the NFL’s all-time leader in punt return touchdowns, with 13.

Flush with salary cap space, Smith’s Buccaneers have been aggressive in free agency, signing, among others, defensive lineman Michael Johnson, cornerback Alterraun Verner, defensive lineman Clinton McDonald and former Bears quarterback Josh McCown.

Though Toub’s Chiefs started the offseason with only about $9.62 million in cap space, they would make the most sense for Hester.

Kansas City lost its primary punt and kickoff returner from last year.

The Titans signed away Dexter McCluster, who had an NFL-best 686 punt return yards last season, to a three-year deal that could be worth $12 million, and the Giants signed Quintin Demps, who returned 33 kickoffs for 992 yards, which ranked third in the NFL in 2013.

Moreover, Toub holds Hester in extremely high regard. Throughout the Chiefs’ turnaround, 11-5 season, which was spurred partly by strong special teams play, he would go out of his way to refer to Hester in reverential terms.

Upon answering a question regarding a McCluster punt return for a touchdown, Toub said in October: “The punt return ability that (McCluster) has is the same thing I had with Devin Hester. You don’t coach it. You tell your blockers where to set it up, where it possibly could hit and then the returner has to have a lot of natural instincts. There is always somebody you will have to make miss. No matter how well you block, you can’t block them all.”

A difference, however, is that McCluster was a jack of all trades and Demps started six games at safety while Hester is a one-trick pony.

Though I thought McCluster was too small (listed at 5-8, 170) and fumble prone, Chiefs coaches lauded his character and willingness to help the Chiefs in a multitude of areas. Kansas City used him in various ways on special teams, as a slot receiver and as a running back.

Hester has proven ineffective as receiver, defensive back and rusher and would have to be used exclusively as a punt and kick returner.

In addition the Chiefs may feel they can use anyone as a returner under Toub, perhaps the NFL’s best special teams coach, and see positive results.

Showing Toub’s deft touch, McCluster exceeded any of his previous yearly punt return totals by 484 yards in his lone year under Toub.

The Chiefs have signed Joe McKnight, once considered Reggie Bush lite at USC because of his similar size and moves, and CFL star Weston Dressler to potentially man the return roles. They also have second-year running back Knile Davis, who returned 10 kicks last year.

But none of those candidates has the resume of Hester, arguably the best returner in NFL history.

Hester is the NFL’s all-time leader in punt return touchdowns (13) and total kick return touchdowns (18). Including his 108-yard missed field goal return touchdown, Hester’s 19 overall return touchdowns are tied with Deion Sanders for the most in regular season history.

Whether the Chiefs sign Hester may come down to dollars and sense. Hester’s last contract was a four-year deal worth almost $22 million, reportedly, including a $1.9 million base salary and a signing bonus of $833, 333 for 2013.

The 31-year-old Hester, who said he wants to play three or four more years, likely won’t come close to receiving the kind of money or length of his former contract. Considering Hester’s very specified role, Kansas City may not have interest in tendering him much beyond a basement salary.

But although Hester seems to have lost a step, he set career highs in kick returns (52) and kick return yards (1,436) this past year. Both marks led the NFL in 2013.

And the three-time Pro Bowler showed he still had some juice left during his last contest when he had six returns for a total of 170 yards.

“I never know where I might land next year,” Hester said after that Week 17 performance. “So I just wanted to make sure that this game — whatever I had in the tank — I left it all on the line.”

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JFedotin

Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills. During his football playing days at Pembroke Hill (Mo.) School, Fedotin was known for his bad knees and even worse blocking. 

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Could Jonathan Martin end up in Indy?

As reporters grilled Joe Philbin about the future of offensive tackle Jonathan Martin while the Dolphins head coach spoke at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, the setting was noteworthy.

The Colts, the NFL team located in that city, may serve as the best fit for the Dolphins tackle.

The assembled media

As reporters grilled Joe Philbin about the future of offensive tackle Jonathan Martin while the Dolphins head coach spoke at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, the setting was noteworthy.

The Colts, the NFL team located in that city, may serve as the best fit for the Dolphins tackle.

The assembled media horde pressed Philbin on Martin’s status for the 2014 season, a topic the coach delicately danced around.

“Our owner, Steve Ross, has reached out to Jonathan,” Philbin said. “I believe at some point in the near future they plan on getting together, so for me to make any comments prior to that meeting, I think would be inappropriate.”

Though Ross also has told reporters he wants a meeting to take place soon, NFP has learned that one has not been scheduled.

Whether or not that happens — as several rumors regarding those meetings have floated around the Internet — the lineman wants to play again.

And given that Martin was the target in a scandal that ravaged Dolphins team chemistry, releasing or trading him would seem the pragmatic approach.

If that scenario does take place, Indianapolis would serve as a natural setting largely because of its deep connections to Stanford, the place where Martin enjoyed great success.

Four Colts players hail from Stanford — or 5 percent of the roster — a figure that is tied with UConn for the school that has produced the highest number of current Colts players.

Colts tight end Coby Fleener, safety Delano Howell, wide receiver Griff Whalen and, of course, quarterback Andrew Luck all were part of Stanford’s 2012 draft class, along with Martin.

Andrew Luck and Jonathan MartinLuck and Martin already have a good rapport dating back to their time together at Stanford.

The Stanford roots extend to the coaching staff, where Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton served as the offensive coordinator/QB coach from 2011-12.

Luck described his closeness to his former blind-side tackle while also publicly supporting him after Martin left the Dolphins in the wake of the bullying scandal.

“We get along very, very well,” Luck told ESPN. ”We had a lot of fun — a lot of good times — together at Stanford. It’s obviously an incredibly unfortunate situation. But out of respect for him and what’s going on, I’d rather not talk about it.”

The Stanford ties run deep in Indianapolis. Whalen lived with Luck — along with David DeCastro, who lined up at right guard while Martin was at left tackle — for three years in Palo Alto, California.

In addition to the Cardinal bonds, the Colts are known league-wide for having a strong locker room, one likely that would not have tolerated what transpired in Miami.

The Colts’ cohesiveness was evidenced by how they embraced the CHUCKSTRONG movement when leukemia forced head coach Chuck Pagano to leave the team and how the squad rallied during the 2014 playoffs from a 38-10, third-quarter deficit for the second biggest comeback in NFL postseason history.

Moreover, Indianapolis has offensive line issues, though the edges of the unit are better than the interior. At offensive tackle the Colts boast two former first-round draft picks — left tackle Anthony Castonzo and right tackle Gosder Cherilus, but one of them could be moved inside.

At the very least, Martin, who has started at both right and left tackle in the NFL, could serve as a versatile swing tackle behind both starters, and NFL teams can never have enough pass-protection options.

Indianapolis certainly has room to sign Martin. Prior to any offseason signings, the Colts were slated to have the fourth most salary cap space in the NFL — about $40 million worth.

And entering the third year of his rookie deal, Martin has a very manageable contract — it reportedly accounts for just $1.3 million against the cap in 2014 and $1.5 million in 2015 — should the Dolphins either trade him or hold on to him.

Whatever happens to Martin, he is a much more desirable commodity than Richie Incognito.

Sure, Martin may have to overcome negative labels that he is too “soft” or “ratted” on his teammates, but the former second-round draft pick plays left tackle, one of the most valuable positions in the NFL, and is just 24.

In contrast the 30-year-old Incognito, who reportedly is going through rehab, is on the downside of his career, having already worn out his welcome as a guard with the Dolphins, Rams and Bills. Behavior issues caused the end of his tenure with the two former teams.

That negative behavior, of course, gained its greatest notoriety with his role in harassing Martin, who walked away from the Dolphins in Week 9 of the 2013 season.

Incognito and Martin, the duo who lined up next to each other on the left side — quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s blind side — of the Dolphins’ line had an odd and often adversarial relationship.

Prior to that, Martin protected Luck’s blind side in college for three years. Now Luck’s pro team may provide the perfect situation to insulate Martin as he resumes his NFL career.

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JFedotin

Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills. During his football playing days at Pembroke Hill (Mo.) School, Fedotin was known for his bad knees and even worse blocking. 

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Bears building blocks

While perched near their lockers, a reporter asked Bears right guard Kyle Long and Bears right tackle Jordan Mills for their first impressions of each other.

“I thought he was a punk,” Long said.

“I thought he was cocky as hell,” Mills retorted.

The razzing between Long (a 2013 first-round pick,

While perched near their lockers, a reporter asked Bears right guard Kyle Long and Bears right tackle Jordan Mills for their first impressions of each other.

“I thought he was a punk,” Long said.

“I thought he was cocky as hell,” Mills retorted.

The razzing between Long (a 2013 first-round pick, 20th overall) and Mills (a 2013 fifth-round pick, 163rd overall) plays out like brothers or best friends, and that’s no surprise. Their bromance began during college All-Star Games and blossomed in the NFL.

When not lining up next to each other on the right side of the Bears offensive line, the rookies leaned on each other for support as they tried to handle the transition to the pros.

They would eat together and park their cars next to each other at the Bears practice facility. At the team hotel at home and on the road, they would room together with Mills serving as Long’s gameday alarm clock.

“We try to do everything together,” Long told NFP. “Every day presents us with an opportunity to learn as a cohesive pair.”

The cohesiveness could be seen on the field. On a Bears team that set franchise records for total net yards (6,109) while also allowing the team’s fewest sacks since 2008, both started all 16 games next to each other in 2013.

“To have two rookies come in and play at that caliber is absolutely incredible,” left guard Matt Slauson said. “I have never seen anything like that.”

The overhaul of a previously leaky unit included Slauson, the four-year veteran and mauling guard who signed a new, four-year deal over the 2014 offseason, along with Long and Mills. Free-agent acquisition Jermon Bushrod, a master technician, took over at left tackle to further bolster a line, which had struggled the past several years.

The improved group allowed just 30 sacks this past season, 14 less than in 2012.

Jordan Mills and Kyle LongMills (far left) and Long (center) share a friendship that dates back prior to each player landing in Chicago.

“In the past it seems like the O-line was one of the weak links,” Slauson said. “I don’t think you can say that anymore.”

Coach Marc Trestman’s emphasis on the short passing game helped but so did the drafting of Long and Mills as the Bears offense finished eighth in the league in total offense while tying for the fourth fewest sacks.

Long, according to Pro Football Focus, gave up just two sacks during 609 dropbacks and was penalized just three times during 1,079 snaps.

He also paved the way for running back Matt Forte, who established his career high of 1,339 rushing yards. The Bears ground game had its greatest success behind the son of Hall of Famer Howie Long, averaging 6.27 yards to his side.

As a result Kyle Long became the first Bears offensive lineman to reach the Pro Bowl since guard Ruben Brown and center Olin Kreutz were both chosen following the 2006 season. Long’s 2014 Pro Bowl selection came as an injury replacement after 49ers guard Mike Iupati had to withdraw from the game with a broken left ankle.

Making the journey from raw rookie to Pro Bowl player, Long bounced back from a poor performance against Lions defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh in Week 4. Early in the season, Long’s motor also could rev a little too high. (Quarterback Jay Cutler referred to him as the team’s “energizer bunny”).

Similarly, Mills could get overly anxious and aggressive. He went after Vikings defensive end Jared Allen after the whistle in Week 13, but both rookies learned to become more patient.

“We let the game to come us more,” Mills said. “At first we used to want to kill everybody.”

Though some metrics-based web sites graded Mills harshly, his transition from starting at a WAC school to starting in the NFC North was very impressive. An offseason in the weight room will help Mills’ improvement — once he fully recovers from a broken metatarsal in his left foot suffered during the Week 17 loss to the Packers.

He had surgery in January.

It was during the previous January when Long and Mills first met at the 2013 Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama.

They were on opposite teams. (Louisiana Tech’s Mills was on the South, and Oregon’s Long was on the North.) But they saw each other in the hotel lobby. “You find yourself down there at late-night snacks with the other fat guys,” Long said.

Contrary to Long’s joking description of Mills as a punk, the tackle made a positive first impression, even though the setting was basically a contentious job interview.

“I just remember him being a great guy. In a room full of guys who are trying to act like tough guys, Jordan was one of the guys who put his hand out and introduced himself,” Long said. “Everyone wants to be Billy Badass. Jordan’s a professional.”

The bond continued to develop at the 2013 NFL Combine, even though they went against each other in shadow drills, pass blocking in front of scouts.

Months after that — upon their first introduction as NFL teammates — the new Bears hugged it out while declaring, “Let’s go to work.”

And that young, hard working duo could anchor the Bears offensive line for the next decade.

“(The) sky’s the limit for those two,” Bushrod said.

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JFedotin

Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills. During his football playing days at Pembroke Hill (Mo.) School, Fedotin was known for his bad knees and even worse blocking.

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Why Andrew Luck is the most untradeable player in the NFL

He’s six years younger than Aaron Rodgers, as athletic as Cam Newton, much bigger than Russell Wilson and as clutch as they come.

If you had to select one player to build your team around at the most important position, you would choose Andrew Luck.

“He has the stuff that makes legends,”

He’s six years younger than Aaron Rodgers, as athletic as Cam Newton, much bigger than Russell Wilson and as clutch as they come.

If you had to select one player to build your team around at the most important position, you would choose Andrew Luck.

“He has the stuff that makes legends,” said Colts linebacker Robert Mathis.

Luck is poised to leave his legacy on the game because he has all of the qualities, which would make him the No. 1 selection in this quarterback-driven league if NFL general managers held a draft. (For what it’s worth, Deion Sanders took Luck first in the 2014 Pro Bowl Draft.)

Smarts

The high school valedictorian earned a 3.48 GPA as an architectural design major at Stanford, but his intelligence transcends book smarts and extends to his mastery of football concepts.

Former Colts offensive coordinator/interim coach Bruce Arians — who was on the Colts and Steelers offensive staffs, respectively, when Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger were rookies — told me that Luck had more offensive responsibilities than either did during their rookie years.

A stout Steelers defense and veteran running backs Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker buttressed Roethlisberger. So Big Ben was often reduced to completing play-action and third-down passes as a rookie.

During his first year with the Colts, Manning would have two or three plays sent to him from the sideline and he’d choose one. But Manning did not yet extensively direct the no-huddle offense that would become his calling card.

By his rookie year, Luck was already orchestrating that hurry-up attack — something Manning did not do until Year No. 2.

Athleticism

Andrew LuckLuck has already engineered eight fourth quarter comebacks in only 35 career starts.

Though Luck is a classic dropback passer, his NFL Scouting Combine numbers mirrored those of Newton, considered one of the game’s most multi-dimensional athletes. Both ran the 40-yard dash in 4.59 seconds, and Luck jumped two inches higher (36) on the vertical leap and two inches shorter (124) on the broad jump.

The versatile Luck can tuck the ball and run, having amassed 632 rushing yards and nine rushing touchdowns in his two years.

“If the team needs a first down, and guys are covered,” said Luck modestly; his demeanor and media-friendly nature are other positive attributes, “I’ll do my best.”

Arm

Luck’s arm is both strong and accurate as exemplified by the biggest play of his young career — the game-winning throw to wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, which traveled more than 50 yards on a rope and hit Hilton in stride during the Colts’ 45-44 playoff victory against the Chiefs.

“That’s just Andrew being Andrew,” Hilton said. “He makes big-time plays in big-time games.”

Clutchness

Whether or not you believe clutchness is an intangible factor or a series of statistical anomalies, Luck seems to have an “it” factor and an ability to lead his team back regardless of the circumstance.

In just 35 career games, Luck has recorded a staggering eight fourth-quarter comebacks and 11 game-winning drives. He has seven wins after the Colts trailed by double-digits in a game.

This season he led the Colts to victory when they were down by 3 in the fourth quarter to the Raiders, 5 in the fourth to the Seahawks and 12 in the fourth to the Texans.

And, of course, the most impressive of them all was the playoff win against the Chiefs after Indianapolis trailed 38-10 in the third quarter, making it the second largest comeback in NFL postseason history.

“I saw the fire in his eye. He wanted to win this game no matter what the scoreboard was,” said Colts wide receiver LaVon Brazill, following the playoff contest. “And he came out here and won this game for us.”

Making Others Around Him Better

Elevating the play of their teammates is an attribute of the best quarterbacks, and — as Brazill alluded to — Luck certainly possesses that. During his rookie year, he took a Colts team, which went 2-14 the year before, and improved it to an 11-5 playoff team.

In his next year, he led the Colts to the AFC South title, even though he was without his best target, wide receiver Reggie Wayne, who tore his ACL in Week 7.

Fifteen teams had more Pro Bowlers named to the 2014 game than the Colts, and Indianapolis’ tally included long snapper Matt Overton. (Wilson and Colin Kaepernick’s teams combined to have 12 more Pro Bowlers than Luck’s squad.)

Durability

At a linebacker-like 6-4 and 239 pounds, Luck has the size to endure a pounding.

It’s why when things break down he can become a running threat, taking on defensive backs and even linebackers.

His sturdy frame is part of the reason he has not missed a start during his two years, even though he has yet to play behind a strong pass-protection unit. During Luck’s rookie year, his offensive line allowed the ninth most sacks in the NFL.

Youth

Luck is only 24, meaning he has likely 12 to 14 years left where he can play at a high level and making him more valuable than the four best quarterbacks in the NFL — Manning (age 37), Tom Brady (36), Drew Brees (35) and Rodgers (30).

Luck has not reached that tier yet, but he continues to improve. From 2012 to 2013, he increased his completion percentage by more than six points and reduced his interceptions by nine.

Luck’s long career is not only just getting started, but the best of it also lies ahead.

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JFedotin

Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills. During his football playing days at Pembroke Hill (Mo.) School, Fedotin was known for his bad knees and even worse blocking.

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Could Chicago host a Super Bowl?

With New York, a cold weather city, hosting Super Bowl XLVIII, the next largest NFL market, Chicago, might seem a natural choice for an outdoor Super Bowl.

Asked about that possibility by NFP, a Bears spokesman said it would wait to see how things go in New York.

The NFL has responded

With New York, a cold weather city, hosting Super Bowl XLVIII, the next largest NFL market, Chicago, might seem a natural choice for an outdoor Super Bowl.

Asked about that possibility by NFP, a Bears spokesman said it would wait to see how things go in New York.

The NFL has responded with a similar blanket statement after several northern cities with open-air stadiums inquired about landing the ultimate game, following the announcement that New York would be this year’s host.

But whether or not the 2014 Super Bowl is successful, a future Super Bowl taking place in Chicago is doubtful.

“There are so many reasons why Chicago is strong,” said Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorps Limited, a leading sports business consulting firm, which has worked on stadium projects related to more than half of the NFL teams. “But its fatal flaw is very likely the facility, and that presupposes that the league chooses to go to northern open-air cities on a regular basis.”

Soldier Field’s problems

Oakland’s dilapidated O.co Coliseum is the only NFL stadium with a smaller seating capacity than Chicago’s Soldier Field, which can hold just 62,000 and lacks an open end zone that could expand capacity by a sizable amount.

“Its constraints make it very difficult to make it Super Bowl-ready,” Ganis said. “It would take a major capital cost to make Soldier Field Super Bowl-eligible.”

Lucas Oil Stadium, the home of the Colts, hosted the Giants’ win against the Patriots in 2012 and drew rave reviews from both the NFL and its fans despite having a small stadium. Lucas Oil has a usual capacity of about 63,000, but that was increased to 68,000 for the game, and it has the benefits of a retractable roof to protect those attending from the elements.

Soldier FieldSoldier Field’s seating limited seating capacity is problem No. 1.

Soldier Field’s issues haven’t stopped Chicago politicians, particularly Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who discussed a Chicago Super Bowl with Commissioner Roger Goodell during the summer, from pushing for it, but that has been as much about creating headlines as realistically landing the game.

With its multitudes of nice hotels and restaurants, accessible air and ground transportation, strong security forces, political support and corporate backing, Chicago has several positives.

“The city itself would be extraordinary,” said Ganis, who resides in Chicago.

But New York, the media capital of the world and the largest and wealthiest city in the United States, was chosen because it had a new 82,000-seat MetLife Stadium, which was funded by the Giants and Jets, and to further boost the city as an attraction post-9/11.

“There is a compelling story line to why New York,” Ganis said.

Even if the NFL decides to move the ultimate game to more northern open-air stadiums, other cities would take precedence over the Windy City.

The case for D.C. and Denver

Both Washington, D.C. and Denver likely would serve as more enticing spots than Chicago.

The Redskins’ FedEx Field is mammoth. In 2010 it had more than 90,000 seats with ample club-level seats, luxury boxes and a large parking facility. The nation’s capital also features three airports and easy access to its stadium.

Sports Authority FieldSports Authority Field in Denver could be on the NFL’s radar as a future Super Bowl site.

Denver would allow the NFL to expand its game to the Rockies, a desirable setting because only 16 of the 47 Super Bowls have taken place west of the Mississippi River.

Sports Authority Field at Mile High has a 76,125-fixed seat capacity. And there is a sentimental factor as rumors have swirled that respected Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, who will turn 70 in February, is having health issues.

But — as noted by the Bears — before the NFL seriously considers other cold weather cities with open-air stadiums like Washington, Denver, Chicago, Boston or Philadelphia, this year’s Super Bowl will have to go off well.

XLVIII will be deemed a success if there are no logistical problems, meaning the transportation, hotels and security operate without hitches.

The NFL will evaluate how the sponsors, networks, fans and the media respond to the NYC environs.

Perhaps the most crucial factor will be the weather. Although having the elements in play might make it fun, the NFL wants to be sure that it doesn’t hurt the action on the field or other Super Bowl-related activities.

This year already has taken on a different and distinctly urban feel. Instead of pondering which Super Bowl party to visit, the focus has been on where to make restaurant reservations and which Broadway shows to see.

How that atmosphere plays out during the Super Bowl, which is more about the week-long event than the game itself, could affect Chicago’s future chances.

Super Bowl sites have been awarded through 2017 with Glendale, Ariz. hosting XLIX (2015), Santa Clara, Calif. hosting L (2016) and Houston hosting LI (2017).

The NFL announces Super Bowl host cities during the spring meetings in May. Indianapolis, Minneapolis (which is slated to have a new stadium by then) and New Orleans are rumored to be the favorites for LII in 2018.

If Chicago gets the chance to host a Super Bowl, it won’t be for a while.

“There are a quite a few others ahead of it. You need to go back to warm weather climates and then you also have some new stadiums coming,” Ganis said, “which the league likes to reward.”

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JFedotin

Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills. During his football playing days at Pembroke Hill (Mo.) School, Fedotin was known for his bad knees and even worse blocking.

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How the loss of Flowers led to a heartbreaking loss

The symbolic play of the Chiefs’ crushing 45-44 loss to the Colts — the franchise’s eighth consecutive playoff defeat, which includes four to Indianapolis — occurred on the unluckiest of bad bounces.

With 10:38 left in the game, Chiefs safety Eric Berry forced running back Donald Brown to fumble near the goal line.

The symbolic play of the Chiefs’ crushing 45-44 loss to the Colts — the franchise’s eighth consecutive playoff defeat, which includes four to Indianapolis — occurred on the unluckiest of bad bounces.

With 10:38 left in the game, Chiefs safety Eric Berry forced running back Donald Brown to fumble near the goal line. The ball popped into quarterback Andrew Luck’s hands. He scored, cutting the lead to 41-38.

“Andrew picks that ball up and finds a way,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “That was incredible.”

Though that incredible momentum swing may serve as the burning memory from the Colts’ comeback from a 38-10 third-quarter deficit, the game-changing event likely occurred when the Chiefs lost cornerback Brandon Flowers with a concussion.

After his injury the wheels came off for the Chiefs.

As Brown scored a touchdown to make it 38-24 with 7:32 left in the third quarter, Flowers collided with Marcus Cooper. A visibly woozy Flowers was forced from the game.

Flowers, who deservedly earned his first Pro Bowl nod this year, is the perfect cornerback for defensive coordinator Bob Sutton’s scheme.

The 5-9, 187-pounder plays with a physical nature that belies his size. Sutton’s array of blitzes often leave his cornerbacks alone in man-to-man coverage, Flowers’ specialty.

After Flowers left the game — he missed about a quarter and a half of game action — Luck passed for 201 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winning 64-yard TD pass to T.Y. Hilton.

Sure, there were other reasons for Kansas City’s collapse.

Linebacker Robert Mathis’ strip-sack gave Indianapolis life; Luck is as clutch as they come and the Chiefs’ depleted squad was down to its third-string running back, was without its No. 2 wide receiver and also had pass rushers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston ailing.

Brandon FlowersFlowers made 13 starts for the Chiefs this season en route to the first Pro Bowl nod of his career.

But even as both those linebackers were hurt late in the year and the Chiefs’ sack numbers plummeted, Flowers was an anchor, helping to hold together a slumping defense.

Early in the season, Cooper, a seventh-round draft pick claimed from the 49ers via waivers, emerged as a defensive sleeper.

But Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning exposed the rookie cornerback in Week 13. He allowed two touchdowns to Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker in a seven-minute span. With 14 minutes left in that game, Manning already had targeted Cooper 10 times, and Cooper had given up seven catches for 165 yards.

As a result the Chiefs benched Cooper with him only starting in Week 17 because Kansas City — with its playoff seeding already assured — did not play any of its defensive starters.

Because of Cooper’s struggles, Dunta Robinson began seeing more time, but he had coverage difficulties, too, which is why he was previously benched in October.

In the playoff game, Hilton burned him with a stutter move to score his first touchdown.

As a result of their pass coverage woes, the Chiefs switched Flowers to the slot cornerback late in the season, showing his versatility and how Kansas City looked to the six-year veteran to stabilize its defense.

That was not an easy transition for Flowers to make.

Because the slot receiver lines up between the linemen and another wide receiver, a nickel cornerback plays in a more confined space, meaning Flowers had many more reads to make. While the outside receiver has a designated route, a slot receiver often predicates his route on the action of the defender, which also is known as an option route.

On the surface, the injury to the Chiefs’ best cornerback was not the one that would kill Kansas City’s chances of defeating the Colts.

That setback seemingly occurred less than five minutes into the game when running back Jamaal Charles banged his head on the turf after going around right end for seven yards. He did not return.

Pagano had spent the week obsessing over containing Charles, an obvious objective, considering Charles had amassed 1,980 total yards and 19 touchdowns this season.

“He was the guy that all eyes were on and the guy that you had to stop,” Pagano said.

But while Charles is clearly the Chiefs’ most dynamic playmaker, Kansas City still put up 513 yards of offense with its star back missing virtually the entire game.

Instead, the Flowers injury proved most costly as the Chiefs allowed 436 passing yards to the Colts.

Perhaps Chiefs fans can take some solace in the fact that their team nearly won a game it had no business winning, considering the litany of significant injuries.

And with a strong leadership structure of John Dorsey and Andy Reid in place and eight Pro Bowlers on the roster, the Chiefs are in good shape for the future.

After finishing 2-14 in 2012, Kansas City could be poised for a return to the playoffs in 2014, which would mark the franchise’s first back-to-back postseason appearances since Marty Schottenheimer roamed the sidelines.

“Coming from having the first pick last year to making the playoffs this year, we did accomplish some things,” said linebacker Derrick Johnson after the game. “At the same time, our standard is very high, and this one right here hurts.”

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JFedotin

Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills. During his football playing days at Pembroke Hill (Mo.) School, Fedotin was known for his bad knees and even worse blocking.

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Why Nick Saban was a better NFL coach than you think

He is the highest paid college football coach in the land. He has won four NCAA titles, including three of the last four.

“He’s a dominant coach,” said linebacker Nico Johnson, who started 21 games at Alabama. “He inspired us.”

But as Nick Saban prepares his team for the Jan. 2 Sugar

He is the highest paid college football coach in the land. He has won four NCAA titles, including three of the last four.

“He’s a dominant coach,” said linebacker Nico Johnson, who started 21 games at Alabama. “He inspired us.”

But as Nick Saban prepares his team for the Jan. 2 Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma, he has one perceived black mark on his coaching resume — his stint with the Miami Dolphins.

Although he was not a success there, it was not the failure many make it out to be.

Saban took over a 4-12 Dolphins team, improving Miami to a respectable 9-7 and second-place AFC East finish in 2005. The next year his Dolphins went 6-10 before Saban decided to move on to Alabama.

“He just loved the atmosphere as far as college a lot more than he did the NFL,” Johnson, who played on the 2009, 2011 and 2012 national championship teams, told NFP.

Nick SabanSaban took a four-win Dolphins team and squeezed nine victories out of them the following season.

After Saban left the Dolphins, Miami fell to 1-15 the next year.

Saban’s overall 15-17 record (a .469 winning percentage) is less than stellar, but it is far from awful.

And it is more impressive considering the circumstances, which included an old defense, poor quarterback play and an oft-suspended running back.

The 2005 team

Saban’s biggest challenge facing the 2005 Dolphins may have involved team chemistry. After quitting football for a year, running back Ricky Williams returned, following a four-game suspension.

Saban repaired a locker room alienated by Williams’ abrupt departure and meshed the RB talents of Williams and Ronnie Brown.

Most think of the early 2000 Dolphins as being a dominant defensive team. But while defensive end Jason Taylor (who had 12 sacks that year) and linebacker Zach Thomas made the Pro Bowl, the aging squad started seven defensive players 30 or older.

The entire starting defensive line — Kevin Carter (32 years old), Keith Traylor (36), Vonnie Holliday (30) and Taylor (31) — was older than 30, and it showed. The team’s defense ranked 18th in the league.

More problematic than the running back situation or the defense’s old legs was the QB play.

Gus Frerotte, the 34-year-old, journeyman quarterback, started 15 games for the Dolphins, completing just 52 percent of his passes.

Winning nine games with Frerotte as his quarterback is a testament to Saban’s ability to get the most out of his team.

The 2006 team

Saban knew he had to improve at quarterback, the weakest part of his squad, and the passing game became even more of an issue after Williams was suspended for the entire 2006 season, following his fourth violation of the league’s substance abuse policy.

Saban and the Dolphins looked at two veteran starting QB options, ultimately trading a second-round draft pick for Daunte Culpepper instead of signing free agent Drew Brees.

Although that decision now looks like a horrendous move, one must keep it in historical perspective.

Culpepper made the Pro Bowl in 2003 and 2004 before suffering a season-ending knee injury during the middle of the 2005 season. Brees suffered a complete, 360-degree tear of his labrum and a partial tear of his rotator cuff in the last game of the 2005 season. The shoulder damage was so bad that Dr. James Andrews told Sports Illustrated it was “one of the most unique injuries” he had ever seen.

Would you rather have a quarterback with a bad knee or a quarterback with a historically bad throwing shoulder?

Culpepper, though, struggled through four starts with the Dolphins, completing 60.4 percent of his passes for 929 yards, two touchdowns, three interceptions and a QB rating of 77.

Meanwhile, Brees completed 64.3 percent of his passes for 4,418 yards, 26 touchdowns, 11 interceptions and a QB rating of 96.2 while leading the Saints to the NFC Championship Game one year after New Orleans finished an NFC-worst 3-13.

The failure to choose the right quarterback would ultimately be the undoing of the 2006 Dolphins team and Saban’s tenure.

Backup QB Joey Harrington would start 11 games, completing 57.5 percent of his passes while throwing 12 touchdowns and 15 interceptions for a QB rating of 68.2.

Despite the lackluster QB play, Saban did extract some moments out of his team. Under his watch, Taylor had the best year of his career to earn Defensive Player of the Year honors. He recorded 13.5 sacks, nine forced fumbles and two interceptions for touchdowns.

He helped lead an impressive road victory against the Super Bowl-bound Bears in Week 9. That 31-13 victory proved to be the high water mark of the year.

Coaching comparison

Part of the reason Saban was such an attractive NFL candidate in 2005 was because of his experience under future Hall of Fame coach Bill Belichick.

Nick SabanSaban left Miami for Alabama, where he won three NCAA titles over the last four years.

Saban served as Belichick’s defensive coordinator on the Browns from 1991-94. Though Belichick has led the Patriots to five Super Bowl appearances, he went 36-44 (a .450 winning percentage) in Cleveland, a worse NFL head coaching mark than Saban had in Miami.

Although the 49ers’ Jim Harbaugh and Eagles’ Chip Kelly have had recent success, going straight from college to the pros, the perception of Saban was lumped in with two other college coaches who struggled to make the transition to the NFL.

After building a reputation as an offensive guru at Louisville, Bobby Petrino signed a five-year, $24 million contract with the Falcons in 2007. Without QB Michael Vick, who was sentenced to 23 months in prison, Petrino went 3-10 and quit after 13 games. In a classless move, he announced his departure to his team by leaving a four-sentence letter in each player’s locker.

As a national championship-winning coach who also left an SEC powerhouse for the NFL, Steve Spurrier is the best comparison to Saban. Like Saban, Spurrier lasted just two NFL seasons before returning to the SEC.

His time with the Redskins, however, was also much less successful than Saban’s with the Dolphins. Spurrier went just 12-20 (a .375 winning percentage) during the 2002-03 seasons.

Moreover, he never made much of an effort to adjust to the NFL, using his old college scheme and bringing along many of his former Florida skill players, including Chris Doering, Jacquez Green, Taylor Jacobs, Willie Jackson, Shane Matthews and Danny Wuerffel, and many of his former Florida assistants.

Petrino and Spurrier — like Saban — realized the college game fit them better and returned to the NCAA.

Still at Alabama, Saban is now 62 despite looking much younger.

Even at that age, he remained an attractive coaching candidate for Texas. The school’s courtship reportedly led Alabama to extend Saban’s contract to more than $7 million annually.

But Johnson, a Chiefs rookie, said Alabama will be the last stop for the peripatetic Saban, who was the head coach at Michigan State, LSU, the Dolphins and Alabama over a stretch from 1995 to 2007.

“His next step is retirement,” Johnson said.

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JFedotin

Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills. During his football playing days at Pembroke Hill (Mo.) School, Fedotin was known for his bad knees and even worse blocking.

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The biggest reason for Kansas City’s turnaround

On the Chargers’ first offensive play in Week 12, quarterback Philip Rivers threw a screen pass to Ryan Mathews, and the running back was held to a one-yard gain.

It wasn’t a linebacker or defensive back — but 6-3, 340-pound Chiefs nose tackle Dontari Poe —who flew across the field to corral Mathews.

On the Chargers’ first offensive play in Week 12, quarterback Philip Rivers threw a screen pass to Ryan Mathews, and the running back was held to a one-yard gain.

It wasn’t a linebacker or defensive back — but 6-3, 340-pound Chiefs nose tackle Dontari Poe —who flew across the field to corral Mathews.

“His quickness and his athletic ability for his size is really, really impressive,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton told NFP. “He can run sideline to sideline.”

That mammoth — yet freakishly athletic — nose tackle anchors Sutton’s scheme, which employs the exotic linebacker blitzes and physical man-to-man coverage that he learned while coaching under Rex Ryan with the Jets.

That Chiefs defense has keyed Kansas City’s improvement from 2-14 in 2012 to 10-3 in 2013. After ranking 25th in points allowed last year, the unit is fourth this season (entering Week 14). Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, who have combined for 22 sacks, have received the headlines especially during the team’s 9-0 start.

But along with that linebacker pressure off the edge, Poe collapses the interior of the line, preventing the quarterback from stepping up in the pocket. The space eater, who has 47 tackles and 4.5 sacks, is also stout against the run.

“He’s a very talented guy,” Sutton said. “He’s been an incredible performer this year.”

Poe also has demonstrated incredible stamina. Heading into Week 14, Poe has been in the lineup for 95 percent of Kansas City’s defensive plays, which amounted to 804 snaps and was 85 more than any other NFL defensive tackle.

Dontari PoeAfter notching zero sacks during his rookie season, Poe has recorded 4.5 through just 13 games this year.

That workload included collecting nine tackles while playing all 80 snaps during the Chiefs’ 23-13 win against the Bills in Week 9.

“It’s a great luxury because very seldom do you have a man as big as he that doesn’t come out,” Sutton said. “It’s a tribute to his conditioning.”

Poe, 23, changed his diet during the offseason to get in better shape. Despite having lived in two barbecue capitals of the world (his hometown of Memphis and Kansas City), he swore off barbecue during the summer.

Instead of eating beef, pork and fried food, Poe has opted for grilled chicken and fish as his go-to meals. As a result he lost 15 to 20 pounds before the 2013 season.

“His offseason conditioning was phenomenal. He worked his tail off,” Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said. “He’s a big guy that’s relentless.”

That relentless attitude wasn’t always on display during his college career. He should have dominated his Conference USA competition. During his final season before declaring for the draft, however, the junior finished with 33 tackles and just one sack for a 2-10 Memphis Tigers squad.

But Poe wowed scouts during the 2012 NFL Combine, benching 225 pounds 44 times, a higher total than anyone else at the combine. He ran the 40 in 4.98 seconds, staggering speed for someone who — at the time — was the fourth heaviest defensive lineman to weigh in at the combine since 2000.

The Chiefs were so enamored with Poe’s physical skills that they selected him 11th overall in the 2012 draft. Though former Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli has been criticized for poor draft selections, Poe was perhaps the most savvy acquisition of Pioli’s much-maligned 2009-2012 tenure.

Since switching from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 in 2009, the Chiefs struggled to find an effective nose tackle, shuffling through Kelly Gregg, Amon Gordon and Ron Edwards. Now they finally have found a man in the middle.

Poe earned the Chiefs’ Mack Lee Hill Award as the team’s top rookie or first-year player after starting all 16 games in 2012.

But he has elevated his play this year due to his improved conditioning and feel for the game. While slimming down he still maxed out at 495 pounds on the bench press during the offseason.

Because he recognizes offensive alignments more quickly, Poe said he can play more aggressively. His next goal is to become better at beating double-team blocks.

“He’s really gained a great understanding of the position and the technique,” Sutton said. “The arrow is pointing up for him, and he’s got a really, really bright future.”

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JFedotin

Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills. During his football playing days at Pembroke Hill (Mo.) School, Fedotin was known for his bad knees and even worse blocking.

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Why the neck roll is going out of style

In the 1970s, 80s and 90s, gritty NFL players, like Jack Lambert, Will Wolford and — perhaps most famously — Howie Long, used to wear neck rolls, an old school, piece of equipment that permeated the league.

A white tube-like foam came around the back of Long’s neck with the two ends sticking

In the 1970s, 80s and 90s, gritty NFL players, like Jack Lambert, Will Wolford and — perhaps most famously — Howie Long, used to wear neck rolls, an old school, piece of equipment that permeated the league.

A white tube-like foam came around the back of Long’s neck with the two ends sticking out the front of the jersey like the tusks of a mastodon.

“It looks stupid,” said Howie’s son, Kyle Long. “I don’t know what the purpose of it was … He’s never been a guy that just tried to look cool.”

Although the Bears right guard did not go for his father’s trend, the Hall of Fame defensive lineman served as inspiration for a generation of fullbacks, linebackers and linemen, including Bears long snapper Patrick Mannelly.

“I just wore it in high school because I thought it looked cool,” Mannelly said. “I tried to look like Howie Long.”

Whether you think the neck pad looks ridiculous (like Kyle Long) or intimidating (Mannelly), the equipment is no longer in vogue in the NFL.

The Cowboy Collar, the curved, black polystyrene foam neck pad popularized by fullback Daryl Johnston, has fallen so out of favor that the company, McDavid, Inc., which invented it, plans to discontinue making it once its current inventory runs out (likely at the end of 2014).

“Over the last several years, what we’ve seen is a steady decline in sales,” said Richard Avis, the global director of McDavid’s sports medicine marketing. “We’ve decided to let (the Cowboy Collar) ride off into the sunset … It’s kind of an end of an era.”

In this new era, the NFL strictly enforces illegal contact and pass interference in the secondary, and hitting the quarterback in the head or below the knee results in a 15-yard penalty, making for a more passing-friendly, less run-intensive league.

Howie LongHall of Fame pass rusher Howie Long inspired legions of youth football players to sport the neck roll.

Spread offenses are all the rage. The power play is no longer an offensive staple, and fullbacks are an endangered species. A streamlined look is in; the larger shoulder pads of the 1990s are out.

“A lot of guys wanted to appear to be bigger,” Kyle Long said. “Nowadays people want to be compact, faster.”

Bears left tackle Jermon Bushrod, Drew Brees’ former Pro Bowl blind-side protector in New Orleans, said the emphasis on concussion prevention also has changed blocking technique, focusing more on leverage and using your hands and less on sticking your head into the mix.

Bushrod wore a neck roll in college at Towson — where he said he “looked crazy” —because he suffered a couple of stingers a game during his senior year, but he doesn’t wear one in the NFL, citing the discomfort of the pad.

Asked if the neck roll ever will regain its popularity in the NFL, Bushrod alluded to the decline in collisions in the running game, “Nope, (it’s) not the direction this league is moving.”

Despite the new trends, the injury that the neck collar was designed to prevent remains prevalent. A brachial plexus injury occurs when impact forces the head back or to the side, causing a stretching of the nerves and numbness sometimes called a burner.

While Matt Slauson blocked on a field goal attempt for the Jets in 2010, the Bills brought the house to try and block the kick. Slauson endured multiple burners, though he did not miss a game that season. He now wears a smaller version of the neck roll that Velcros to the inside of his shoulder pad, a handy piece of equipment for a pulling guard who often takes on a linebacker with a full head of steam.

“The neck roll helps especially playing the left guard position,” Slauson said. “You’re like a fullback coming through.”

Though Slauson wears the pad, he does so somewhat regrettably because it makes it more difficult to keep his head on a swivel and locate who is rushing the passer.

Eben Britton, who the Jaguars drafted in the second round of the 2009 draft, wore a Cowboy Collar at John Burroughs (Calif.) High — 70 percent of the reason was for style; 30 percent was because of a weak neck — but not as a lineman in the pros or collegiately at Arizona for the reason Slauson complained about.

“Playing O-line you need to be able to move your head around and look,” Britton said. “That really inhibits it.”

The original appeal of the neck rolls, though, had as much to do with fashion as the functionality.

Mannelly suggested having players wear them with throwback uniforms. Bears defensive end Julius Peppers smiled when it was broached that he should sport one to bring back the style.

“Times have changed,” Peppers said. “And guys are doing other things to look cool now.”

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JFedotin

Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills. During his football playing days at Pembroke Hill (Mo.) School, Fedotin was known for his bad knees and even worse blocking.

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Has Glenn Dorsey shed the bust label?

After being considered the best defensive player in the 2008 NFL Draft and someone who would anchor the Chiefs defense for years, Glenn Dorsey was deemed a disappointment by many.

The Chiefs did not re-sign their former fifth overall pick, who recorded just four sacks in five years with Kansas City.

But

After being considered the best defensive player in the 2008 NFL Draft and someone who would anchor the Chiefs defense for years, Glenn Dorsey was deemed a disappointment by many.

The Chiefs did not re-sign their former fifth overall pick, who recorded just four sacks in five years with Kansas City.

But the 49ers snapped him up as a free agent during the offseason, and he seems to finally have found a nice fit.

“I’ve got all day to talk about Glenn Dorsey,” beamed 49ers defensive line coach Jim Tomsula during a conversation with NFP. “Glenn is doing just a tremendous job.”

Dorsey’s “tremendous” play is all the more impressive, considering the adjustments he’s had to make during his six year-career, which now finds him at nose tackle.

Drafted by the Chiefs in the Herm Edwards regime as a penetrating defensive tackle for the Tampa-2, 4-3 defense in the mold of Tommie Harris or Warren Sapp, Dorsey was then moved to defensive end in 2009 when Todd Haley and then Romeo Crennel installed the 3-4 defense used by the Patriots.

During his rookie season, Dorsey had just one sack despite starting 16 games as the three-technique tackle, lining up on the guard’s outside shoulder. After moving to defensive end in a 3-4 — where, granted, sacks are not the best measurable to evaluate a defensive lineman — he collected just three more over the next four seasons while never really becoming a run stuffer either.

Glenn DorseyWhile it didn’t work out in Kansas City, Dorsey has already tied a career-high in sacks (2.0) though just nine games.

After nose tackle Ian Williams broke his ankle in Week 2, Dorsey became San Francisco’s starting NT, a new role where he goes against the center.

“(It’s) drastically different than what he was doing,” Tomsula said. “This is a new schematic, new techniques and a position change for him.”

At the listed figure of 6-1, 297, Dorsey seems small for the nose tackle position, which is typified by players like 300-pound behemoths, Casey Hampton and Vince Wilfork.

But for their scheme, the 49ers want defensive linemen who can move, and Dorsey, who has started six games for San Francisco, has the requisite lower body strength and can play with excellent bend and leverage.

“We play the nose guard position differently,” Tomsula said. “The only fat guy I want in there is me.”

Williams is just 6-1 and 307 pounds. Now with the Colts, Ricky Jean Francois, a LSU product like Dorsey, played some nose last year despite being 6-3 and 297 pounds.

Dorsey’s success as an undersized nose — where he already has matched his career-high of two sacks — begs the question why Kansas City didn’t use him as such instead of as a 3-4 defensive end where his role was to clog traffic rather than penetrate and wreak havoc up the field.

When pressed, Tomsula shrewdly sidestepped that hornet’s nest of a question, instead answering respectfully.

“I thought Glenn played at a high level for the Kansas City Chiefs. I thought he did a nice job within the scheme,” Tomsula said. “He did exactly what they asked him to do.”

Although using Dorsey at nose instead of Kelly Gregg, Amon Gordon or Ron Edwards potentially could have elevated a Kansas City team that amassed just 23 wins from 2009 to 2012, the point is now moot.

Kansas City has found a very good one in 6-3, 346-pound Dontari Poe, who has 4.5 sacks in his second year.

With San Francisco, Dorsey has accelerated his transition to nose because of his work ethic, which Tomsula lauded.

When Tomsula picked up Dorsey at the airport for his free agent visit, they drove to the 49ers facility, passionately talked technique and walked the field, going over football schemes until about 3 a.m.

“He has just worked tirelessly,” Tomsula said. “(He’s) just a guy who’s really excited about football.”

In addition to Dorsey’s athleticism and enthusiasm, he is bolstered by a scrappy, blue-collar but talented line, including Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Demarcus Dobbs and Tony Jerod-Eddie, on one of the NFL’s best defenses.

“I have the best coaching job in football,” Tomsula said.

As part of his job, Tomusla has enjoyed working with Dorsey and overseeing the transition of a 28-year-old who may be on the cusp of fulfilling his potential.

“There’s so much room to continue to grow,” Tomsula said.

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JFedotin

Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills. During his football playing days at Pembroke Hill (Mo.) School, Fedotin was known for his bad knees and even worse blocking.

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Is Jimmy Graham just scratching the surface?

Jimmy Graham may have emerged as the best tight end in football, but the 6-7, 265-pounder is still figuring out the nuances of the game.

“Every day I’m growing and every day I’m learning,” Graham told NFP. “I still feel like there’s a lot I can learn and a lot I can get

Jimmy Graham may have emerged as the best tight end in football, but the 6-7, 265-pounder is still figuring out the nuances of the game.

“Every day I’m growing and every day I’m learning,” Graham told NFP. “I still feel like there’s a lot I can learn and a lot I can get better at.”

Now that the former University of Miami (Fla.) basketball player, who played just one season of college football, understands how to watch film, the fourth-year NFL star said he finally recognizes holes in the defense and more quickly realizes when he has one-on-one matchups.

“I feel light years ahead of where I was two, three years ago,” Graham said.

And his 2013 season may end up being ahead of every tight end in the history of the NFL. Even after getting held without a catch in Week 6 against the Patriots, he’s on pace for 1,581 yards, which would shatter the NFL single-season yardage record for a tight end. (Rob Gronkowski holds that mark of 1,327 yards set in 2011.)

After Week 5 Graham tied an NFL record for consecutive 100-yard receiving games for a tight end (4). He was the Offensive Player of the Month for September, the first tight end to receive such an award since the NFL began handing it out in 1986.

Graham attributes his spectacular 2013 performance to not only his continuing understanding of the game but also that he had an entire offseason to work with quarterback Drew Brees.

The previous offseason they missed time together because Brees, a free agent, was holding out. The NFL lockout occurred the year before, preventing workouts before the season.

“(This) was the first offseason where me and Drew really had the time and the chance to get all that work in,” he said. “I feel like me and him are on the same heartbeat right now. He definitely expects me to be certain places and knows I’m going to be there. There are certain situations he knows where I’m one-on-one, and he just throws it up to me. He has a lot of trust, a lot of faith in me.”

In addition to his synchronization with Brees, Graham cited another reason for his hot start. He was much healthier. That, of course, was before he hurt his left foot in Week 6. Preliminary reports indicate the injury is not serious.

That wasn’t the case last year when Graham battled right ankle and left wrist injuries and was limited to nine starts. The latter injury required offseason surgery and may explain his drop in production to 85 catches for 982 yards and nine touchdowns.

Jimmy Graham and Drew BreesThrough the first six contests of the season, Graham is averaging 9.8 targets per game from Brees.

Sure, those were impressive numbers, but they represented a major decline from his breakout 2011 season when he had 99 catches for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns. According to Stats, Inc., Graham led the league in 2012 with 13 dropped passes, a likely byproduct of his ailing wrist preventing him from properly catching the ball.

“Last year was a rough one for me,” Graham said.

This year the Saints have deployed him all over the field, a versatility that was on display as he burned the Bears for 135 yards on 10 catches during a 26-18 victory in Week 5.

“He’s a tough guy to stop,” Bears coach Marc Trestman said. “They use him as a wide receiver out on the perimeter. They use him inside.”

As a result, defenses are forced to be just as creative in how they try and contain him. The Bears threw the kitchen sink at him, rotating defenders, mixing coverages, using double teams and trying to jam him at the line of scrimmage.

“They were putting guys everywhere and making sure I wouldn’t get off the ball clean,” Graham said. “Every one on their secondary and every linebacker at some point had me.”

If there’s a particular route where Graham has had success, it may be the sluggo (also known as the slant-and-go). With opposing defenses so geared to stop the short route, Graham can set them up before torching them on a long go pattern.

“A lot of corners and safeties are just hungry for that big hit or to break up that slant,” Graham said. “Drew believes no matter what the defense is that I’m going to catch it.”

Although the Patriots held Graham without a catch in Week 6, they shadowed him with Aqib Talib, one of the game’s best cover cornerbacks, a treatment usually reserved for a team’s No. 1 wide receiver.

There’s the rub.

Graham is in the last year of his contract, and rumors have swirled that his agent, Jimmy Sexton, will ask for wide receiver — not tight end — money, which could approach $10 million a year — a major increase from Gronkowsi’s six-year, $54 million deal, the richest tight end contract in history.

But that’s a story for the upcoming offseason. For now Graham is just enjoying the benefits of the past offseason, his first one in years with Brees and one that brought him another step closer to fulfilling his limitless potential.

“He’s still hungry to learn,” Saints wide receiver Marques Colston said. “He’s only going to continue to get better.”

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JFedotin

Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills. During his football playing days at Pembroke Hill (Mo.) School, Fedotin was known for his bad knees and even worse blocking.

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Should the NFL get rid of Thursday Night Football?

Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis had completed one of the most impressive medical recoveries in football history.

He became the first NFL player to successfully resume his career after three ACL reconstructions to the same knee, playing 15 games in 2012.

But when I talked to him last season, he was smarting over

Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis had completed one of the most impressive medical recoveries in football history.

He became the first NFL player to successfully resume his career after three ACL reconstructions to the same knee, playing 15 games in 2012.

But when I talked to him last season, he was smarting over the game he missed — a 36-7 loss to the Giants in Week 3 on Thursday Night Football.

Thomas DavisDavis appeared in 15 games last season, but missed Carolina’s Thursday night showdown with the Giants.

Given a full week’s time to recover, Davis swears his hamstring injury would’ve healed enough for him to suit up.

Instead playing football on a short week is even more grueling for players already competing in a physically and mentally taxing sport.

“You can’t really just dig into practice like you would if it was a normal week,” Saints wide receiver Robert Meachem told NFP. “It’s hard physically because you’ve got to get your body back ready for a quick week. There are a lot of bumps and bruises that fans and other people just don’t see. They don’t understand what we have to get through to get to the game.”

As a result there is a carryover into the overall performance in the games. Excluding Week 1’s 49-27 Broncos win — for which Denver and the Ravens had all offseason to prepare — Thursday nights this season have featured a number of ugly, mistake-filled contests.

Week 2 — Patriots 13, Jets 10

This slopfest had a multitude of dropped passes on both sides. Future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady recorded a 71.0 QB rating, and his counterpart, Jets quarterback Geno Smith, threw three fourth-quarter interceptions. On the 17 possessions in the first half, there were 11 punts, a lost fumble, one missed field goal, three field goals and a touchdown.

Week 3 — Chiefs 26, Eagles 16

The Eagles had four first-half fumbles, including gaffes that should not happen on the high school level. Philadelphia fumbled a shotgun snap, and Damaris Johnson’s muffed fair catch gave Kansas City the ball at the Philadelphia eight-yard line.

Week 4 — 49ers 35, Rams 11

The teams combined for 18 penalties totaling 167 yards. The Rams averaged .9 yards per carry, and Rams quarterback Sam Bradford completed just 19-of-41 passes.

Week 5 — Browns 37, Bills 24

This was actually one of the more entertaining Thursday Night Football contests this year, and it says something when a game that ended in a Jeff Tuel-Brandon Weeden quarterback duel qualifies as such.

Week 6 — Bears 27, Giants 21

The game was decided when the potential game-winning pass went right through the hands of Giants tight end Brandon Myers and was intercepted by Bears cornerback Tim Jennings. Perhaps that’s just indicative of the Giants’ woeful season, but New York’s execution certainly did not look crisp on the contest’s most important play.

Lack of prep and soreness

The Week 6 game was also different in ways not noticeable to the everyday fan. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler said both teams ran more basic and vanilla schemes because of the short week.

Teams change their gameplan because they are forced to scale back their preparation. The Saints, for example, typically cut down the number of their practice reps each day and do not go in full pads all week before they play on Thursday night.

“Before you know it, the game’s on you,” Saints center Brian de la Puente said. “You like being in the spotlight, but it also poses recovery and logistical issues.”

Jay CutlerICONCutler said teams tend to be a bit more ‘vanilla’ in their game planning when playing on Thursday night.

Regarding his typical recovery, Cutler said Thursday is the day his body is “just starting to feel a little bit better.”

“Physically just being able to go out there full speed on Thursday is a challenge,” he said. “It’s hard to win in this league especially on a Thursday.”

For Cutler’s teammate, cornerback Charles Tillman, Thursday was not enough time. The two-time Pro Bowler missed his first game since 2009 because of a knee injury, even though he showed up at 6 a.m. every morning for treatment, leading up to the game.

Because quality starters like Tillman have to miss the game, the product on the field becomes worse.

Moreover, the truncated week seems contradictory when the NFL is making such an apparent public effort to focus on player safety, including the way the league now legislates hits on receivers and quarterbacks.

Will the NFL eliminate Thursday night games?

Despite that hypocrisy, don’t look for Thursday night games to go away. It gives the NFL a platform to showcase its NFL Network and a reason for cable companies to pay for it.

Most of the games have been sloppy and lacked marquee opponents. The NFL Network’s slate has yet to feature a contest between two over .500 teams this season.

The games, however, are drawing strong ratings. Through five weeks the 2013 games have averaged a 5.1 American household rating (a 28 percent increase over last year) and 8.1 million viewers (a 27 percent increase over last year.)

Even though Week 6 featured the winless Giants, approximately 1.7 million more people watched that than the American League Division Series between the Tigers and A’s, according to Nielsen ratings.

It just goes to show the insatiable thirst for all things NFL. Fans cannot get enough of it.

But in this case Thursday Night Football represents quantity over quality.

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JFedotin

Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills. During his football playing days at Pembroke Hill (Mo.) School, Fedotin was known for his bad knees and even worse blocking.

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Big D’s surprise starter

Cowboys training camp had already started, but George Selvie, a free agent, was still on the street — literally.

After returning from a late July workout at his gym in his hometown of Pensacola, Fla., Selvie was driving on the road when he returned a missed call from Deryk Gilmore, his agent.

Cowboys training camp had already started, but George Selvie, a free agent, was still on the street — literally.

After returning from a late July workout at his gym in his hometown of Pensacola, Fla., Selvie was driving on the road when he returned a missed call from Deryk Gilmore, his agent.

Gilmore told the defensive end that the Cowboys wanted to bring him in. By the next afternoon, he signed a contract and was already on the Oxnard, Calif. field.

“I tried to make some plays, and that’s what I did,” Selvie told NFP. “The rest is history.”

Indeed after recording 10 tackles, three sacks and four QB pressures during the preseason, he earned more than a roster spot. In place of LDE Anthony Spencer, who received the franchise tag this year but is out for the season following microfracture knee surgery, Selvie has started every game during the 2013 regular season and responded with 11 tackles, three sacks and a fumble recovery.

“Having a chance to start for the Cowboys is always a blessing,” Selvie said. “It’s a big role to fill.”

Selvie has found a nice fit with the Cowboys, one of the rare NFL teams that still runs the Tampa Two, the same defense in which Selvie excelled at South Florida.

The Rams selected the two-time All-American in the seventh round of the 2010 NFL Draft, and Selvie played in all 16 games his rookie year. Though St. Louis ran a 4-3, it employed Selvie as a hybrid joker. Instead of concentrating on rushing the passer off the edge, he dropped in pass coverage, his hand often wasn’t in the dirt and he played inside on third down.

The Rams released him, and he played for the Panthers for one year and the Jaguars for two. Jacksonville primarily used him on first and second down, robbing Selvie of his best asset, attacking the quarterback on third down, and Selvie only notched 1.5 sacks over two years.

“That was frustrating,” Selvie said. “The Cowboys gave me an opportunity to rush the passer, and I’m grateful for that.”

George SelvieSelvie notched just one sack last season with the Jaguars, but has recorded three through four games with Dallas in 2013.

The Cowboys scheme is perfect for Selvie because the primary job of the front four is to generate pressure. Defensive ends can be smaller, explosive players who blow by the tackle to get to the quarterback while the linebackers and safeties often drop deep in coverage.

“(The key is) just get off the ball,” Selvie said. “Just get to the quarterback.”

In their first year in Dallas, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and defensive line coach Rod Marinelli employ the system they helped originate with the Buccaneers. Rather than preach versatility from their defensive ends, they emphasize turnovers and run ball-strip drills every practice.

Selvie always had the potential to make game-changing plays. A sophomore star at South Florida, he ranked first in the country with 31.5 tackles for loss and second in sacks with 14.5. But injuries slowed him during a disappointing senior season, and he only notched 3.5 sacks.

That drop in production and his lack of girth caused him to fall to the 226th pick, the 19th of the seventh round.

Once a 217-pound freshman, Selvie ingested a 6,000-plus daily caloric load during the college season, but the 6-4 pass rusher’s weight often dropped below 230 pounds, and he never weighed more than 255. The Cowboys list him at 270, though that weight may be generous.

“Now I’m still a little light, but it’s easier for me to maintain weight,” Selvie said. “Being a little bit older, too, I got that old man weight…My metabolism’s slowed down.”

Another reason for his draft slide may have been that scouts seemed to forget about Selvie, turning their attention to a potential-laden player on the opposite side of him who joined South Florida during Selvie’s senior year.

That player, Jason Pierre-Paul, would go 15th in the same 2010 draft to the New York Giants after recording 6.5 sacks in his lone year at South Florida. A two-time Pro Bowler, Pierre-Paul has become one of the NFL’s best defensive players.

Though they are NFC East foes, Pierre-Paul and Selvie remain close and text each other weekly. Selvie’s team got the best of his former teammate’s in Week 1 as the Cowboys defeated the Giants 36-31.

More important bragging rights occurred in Week 3 when the Cowboys stomped the Rams, the team who drafted Selvie and then discarded him after a year, 31-7. Selvie had one of the Cowboys’ six sacks.

The Rams, though, are just one of the teams to overlook Selvie — whether it was passing on him in the draft or as a free agent.

“I have a little bit of a chip on my shoulder,” Selvie said. “I’ve been doubted.”

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JFedotin

Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills. During his football playing days at Pembroke Hill (Mo.) School, Fedotin was known for his bad knees and even worse blocking.

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