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Sources: Ravens fear Edwards, Peters tore ACLs

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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Baltimore Ravens fear they lost running back Gus Edwards and cornerback Marcus Peters to season-ending knee injuries Thursday, sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

The Ravens believe Edwards and Peters tore their ACLs during Thursday’s practice, sources tell Schefter. Both players are undergoing testing to confirm the initial diagnosis.

This continues a horrid run of injuries for Baltimore and delivers a major blow to the Ravens’ Super Bowl aspirations.

Edwards becomes the third running back to suffer a season-ending injury in a span of 12 days. J.K. Dobbins tore the ACL in his left knee the preseason finale Aug. 28, and Justice Hill hurt an Achilles tendon Sept. 9.

Ty’Son Williams, a practice player from a year ago who doesn’t have an NFL carry, becomes the Ravens’ lead back. The other two running backs on the roster — Trenton Cannon and Le’Veon Bell (practice squad) — only started practicing with the Ravens on Wednesday.

The loss of Peters would represent the most significant injury to the defense this year. The Ravens have depth at cornerback, but it will be difficult to replace Peters’ playmaking ability. His 31 interceptions leads the NFL since he entered the league in 2015.

Anthony Averett, a fourth-round pick in 2018, would be a candidate to replace Peters and start opposite Marlon Humphrey.

The Ravens open the season at the Las Vegas Raiders on Monday Night Football.

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Saints complete trade for CB Roby, sources say

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The New Orleans Saints have finalized their trade for cornerback Bradley Roby, sending a 2022 third-round draft pick and a 2023 conditional pick to the Houston Texans, sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

In order to facilitate a trade to the Saints, the Texans converted $7.6 million of Roby’s base salary into a signing bonus, a source told ESPN’s Field Yates. When Roby officially gets traded to New Orleans, his base salary for 2021 is now $1,862,645, which fits into the Saints’ salary-cap space.

Roby was a first-round draft pick of the Denver Broncos in 2014. He spent the past two years in Houston and has started 49 career games with 10 interceptions.

The 29-year-old Roby is entering the second year of a three-year, $31.5 million extension that he signed with the Texans last year. He will miss the first game of the season, however, as part of a six-game suspension that began in 2020 for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.

The Saints have identified cornerback as a “must-fill” position ever since they released former starter Janoris Jenkins in March as part of a massive salary-cap purge and then lost one potential starting contender, Patrick Robinson, to a surprise retirement early in training camp. They even attempted to trade up nearly 20 spots in the NFL draft to land top prospects Jaycee Horn or Pat Surtain II.

New Orleans signed veteran Desmond Trufant on Monday to compete with Ken Crawley and rookie Paulson Adebo for the No. 2 starting cornerback job across from Pro Bowler Marshon Lattimore. However, Roby now becomes the front-runner to lock down that job following his suspension.

ESPN’s Mike Triplett contributed to this report.

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Giraffe named after QB Burrow dies after illness

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A young giraffe named after Cincinnati Bengals quarterback and former LSU star Joe Burrow died Wednesday, a day after falling ill.

Officials at the Baton Rouge Zoo said in a release Thursday that the 20-month-old giraffe named Burreaux had died after developing a sudden onset of symptoms Tuesday, including a severe cough and overall agitation.

“The Zoo’s veterinary staff took immediate measures to help, including swiftly administering medications to stabilize,” the statement said. “As well, he underwent constant staff evaluation to optimize his chances of recovery. The Zoo’s team reached out to numerous zoological veterinarians throughout the nation — none of which had experienced a giraffe with comparable symptoms.”

The Burreaux name had been chosen in a fundraiser run by the zoo and came after Burrow spelled it that way on the back of his jersey for the Tigers’ Senior Night in 2019.

The zoo said an LSU veterinary team has performed a necropsy to determine the possible cause of death. The official results are expected in about 30 days.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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‘Go for two’: Why Buccaneers feel ‘miles ahead’ of 2020 as quest to repeat begins

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TAMPA, Fla. — At around 8:30 on the morning after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 31-9 in Super Bowl LV, Bucs quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen was enjoying a visit with his grandchildren when his phone rang.

It was a FaceTime call from none other than Tom Brady, who didn’t see Christensen after the game and wanted to thank him. But the quarterback was also eager to get to work on the 2021 season, telling Christensen, “Hey, I’ve just been sitting here thinking about we could really be a lot better next year. We still haven’t hit our peak. I really believe we’ve got a chance to be much, much, much better this year.”

And they do.

“We’re miles ahead of what we were last year,” wide receiver Mike Evans said. “Not just me and [Brady’s] connection, but the whole team — the whole offense.”

The NFL hasn’t seen a repeat Super Bowl champion since Brady’s Patriots in 2003-2004, though, and it has been done only eight times, with three other teams even reaching the Super Bowl and losing the next year.

“It’s just that the league is so competitive,” said tight end Rob Gronkowski, who won three titles with the Patriots but never did so consecutively. “That’s what makes it so hard to win a championship, let alone to repeat.”

Here’s how the Bucs have tried to build on last year and what they’re up against as they try to “go for two” — their mantra this season — with their journey beginning Thursday night against the Dallas Cowboys (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC).

More cohesiveness with Brady and the offense

Tampa Bay returns all of its starters from last season. Brady has gone from last year’s having to learn an entirely new language in coach Bruce Arians’ offense with no offseason or preseason to fluency. Receivers know precisely the way he wants routes to be run. They are no longer struggling to get their heads around fast enough to account for his quick release or seeing different coverages than Brady does on option routes — an issue the Bucs ran into at times early last year.

“Now that they have an understanding of each other, you see us having more success just by them knowing each other and knowing what each other are going to do in certain situations,” offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said.

“It’s been so much better. Everybody is more comfortable. Everyone knows each other. Last year, it was bizarre almost,” Christensen said. “I didn’t know [Brady], and the receivers didn’t know him. No one knew him. I was scared of him …. It’s been a 100% difference just on us knowing what he likes, for Byron to know what he likes, for us to know how he trains and for him to know what we expect out of him.”

After a three-and-out on the opening drive against the Houston Texans in the third preseason game, the Bucs went no-huddle and Brady executed it to perfection, ripping seven straight completions to four different receivers — including a 24-yard touchdown to Chris Godwin.

“Tom really operates it fast now,” Arians said of the no-huddle. “All the words mean something for him, where they didn’t — ‘What the hell did that mean?’ — last year. So it’s a lot easier.”

Granted, it was preseason, when teams stick to vanilla defense, but the potential is there.

“Everyone’s on the same page. Last year, we felt like we left a lot, a lot out there,” Evans said. “Games could have been a little bit easier last year for us, we feel like.”

New pieces

Tampa Bay’s selection of linebacker Joe Tryon-Shoyinka out of Washington with the 32nd overall draft pick is looking like a smart move, as he was plenty disruptive in the preseason and adds freshness to the team’s rotation. His average get-off speed of 0.74 seconds this preseason ranked sixth among 200 players with 30-plus pass rushes. He also got pressure on 16.7% of his pass rushes, tied for fourth best among those players, per NFL Next Gen Stats data.

“I told him today that he’s going to be one of the key guys that helps us get back to the Super Bowl,” veteran outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul said. “The way he bends — it took me awhile for me to know how to bend and stuff like that. The way he grasps the plays and stuff — he’s there.”

The Bucs also bolstered the short passing game with the addition of veteran Giovani Bernard, whose 2,867 receiving yards and 342 receptions are third most in the NFL among running backs since 2013. Brady’s 69.7% completion percentage on passes to running backs in 2020 was tied for third lowest in his career, and he saw the fewest yards per attempt in passes targeting running backs (4.44 yards per attempt).

Special teams coverage was a major area of focus this offseason. Tampa Bay surrendered a league-worst 33.6 yards per kickoff return last season and allowed 10.3 yards per punt return.

Dee Delaney, Chris Cooper and Grant Stuard (along with second-year running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn) all reached 20 mph in punt and kick return coverage this preseason, something the Bucs only consistently got from Ryan Smith (now with the Los Angeles Chargers) and Jamel Dean last year.

Injuries

The Bucs couldn’t be in better shape. Arians gave the veterans a rest this spring — the result of some self-reflection after injuries plagued his Arizona Cardinals after reaching the NFC Championship Game in 2015, and his reliance on sports science, including use of GPS tracking devices that monitor player steps, speed and exertion.

Several players also underwent surgery for chronic injuries, including knee scopes for Brady, Pierre-Paul and wide receiver Antonio Brown.

“This is the healthiest I’ve felt,” Pierre-Paul said. “I feel like JPP from 2010.”

Brown also has shown glimpses of his All-Pro form from five years ago, at times looking unbeatable in camp.

“He’s able to go out there more and give more effort and energy to his routes and to his technique,” wide receivers coach Kevin Garver said of Brown.

“He can stick his foot in the ground better. Because the knee’s not bothering him as much — I think if you go back and watch the Saints game from the playoffs, he couldn’t stick his foot in the ground to get out of his route, so he couldn’t go anymore.”

Starting strong safety Jordan Whitehead is dealing with a hamstring injury and won’t play Thursday night, but the coaching staff believes backup Mike Edwards has really blossomed into a ball hawk and can step in.

Evans’ best season yet?

One of the best-kept secrets out of Tampa Bay’s camp has been the feeling that this could be Evans’ best year.

“It’s the best he’s been — I hate saying that,” Leftwich said. “He had a hell of a camp.”

In the past, Evans struggled to keep his weight down and would gain around 15 pounds in the offseason, going up to 240, having to exert himself physically to try to burn off all that weight. This year, he managed to control his weight through diet and hydration.

“It’s way harder [to get back into shape versus staying in shape],” Evans said. “I’ve been shooting myself in the foot doing that the first four or five years of my career. … This training camp I feel like it’s the best shape I’ve been in.”

The extra activity — like running 100 routes a day — to try to burn off excess weight was taking a toll on his body, giving him hamstring strains and wearing him out.

“Now I’m just trying to be smart and always stay in shape so my body can be ready,” Evans said. “As long as I’m in good shape and I’m healthy, I feel like I’m the best receiver on the planet.”

There’s also been a misconception that Evans — known as a long-strider because of his 6-foot-5 frame and success downfield — can’t excel in short to intermediate routes, which rely more on quickness. He has worked hard to improve that, his timing with Brady and his yards after the catch.

“That’s one of the things I told Tom when he first got here is, ‘You’re going to be surprised with how good he is in those short areas,'” Leftwich said.

Becoming a target, fighting complacency

Like every team that hoists the Lombardi trophy victoriously the previous winter, the Bucs must learn to adjust to having a target on their backs, to go from hunting each week to suddenly becoming the hunted. They got a taste of it when the Tennessee Titans outplayed them in the first of two joint practices before roaring back on Day 2.

But Leftwich thinks it started last year.

“Every day we were on TV, good or bad,” Leftwich said. “I know how that goes in the opposing locker room. … we had everybody’s best shot last year before we were able to prove what we were as a team. We expect the same.”

Another issue Super Bowl teams must navigate is the threat of complacency and living in the rearview mirror.

Longtime defensive captain Lavonte David said although he’ll have goose bumps Thursday night — the first time a packed Raymond James Stadium will see the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers after last season’s COVID-19 restrictions– when kickoff comes, last year’s title will be an afterthought.

“We’re the 2021 Buccaneers now,” David said. “There’s no more 2020 Buccaneers. We just can’t be distracted by it.”

That’s a major reason Tampa Bay chose to have its White House visit before training camp despite there being talks of possibly doing it in November when the team will play the Washington Football Team right outside Washington, D.C.

“Going back to the first preseason game … we had all those [Super Bowl] banners around the inside of the stadium. I’m so glad they got ’em out, and I’d like to get ’em off the fences here, me personally,” said assistant head coach/run game coordinator Harold Goodwin.

Christensen believes it’s all about leadership, particularly at the quarterback position, which is what he witnessed with Peyton Manning in Indianapolis. Players wouldn’t dare come to camp out of shape on his watch.

“There’s zero chance for complacency — zero,” Christensen said. “They won’t allow it to happen. It’s not in their being. … I think that’s the advantage.”

Brady is eager to see how this team can measure up.

“I’d love to see where we can get this year,” Brady said. “All of it is earned. There’s nothing given. It’s not about a bunch of hype or a bunch of buildup and B.S. We have to go do it.”

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340 days, two surgeries and Dak is back: Why the Cowboys have zero concerns about Prescott

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FRISCO, Texas — To his right, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott saw a blur of blue jerseys as pass-rushers closed. His path to the left was also blocked, but he quickly stepped to a vacant middle. Eyes up, two hands on the ball, he turned his hips just so and let go of the football for a completion.

In his first five seasons with the Cowboys, this play from his first full practice on Aug. 25 was one Prescott has made hundreds of times. Going back to his days in Haughton, Louisiana, it is maybe one he has made thousands of times.

It was instinctive, like he never had a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle during a Week 5 game that ended his 2020 season. It was awareness, like he never had a latissimus strain in his right shoulder that prevented him from taking part in the majority of training camp and all four preseason games.

“Just kind of reactive, saw the throw, saw I needed to make it at that time and let it go,” Prescott said. “At that point I knew … That was maybe 100 or 100 plus percent that I used my arm and nothing came from it. Yeah, that was definitely one of the few plays that after the play happened, and after watching it back on film you say, ‘Yeah, I’m ready. I’m good to go.'”

Dallas opens its season Thursday against the reigning Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC). Prescott is the centerpiece to the Cowboys’ success in 2021, but this will be his first game in 340 days, and it leads to the most obvious question:

Will Dak be Dak?

The Cowboys have no doubt.

“Why is that? I think just the way he prepares, the way he carries himself, the work he puts in,” Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott said.

“He’s ready to roll,” said Dallas right guard Zack Martin, whose absence Thursday could greatly affect Prescott’s play. Martin tested positive for coronavirus and was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

It is impossible to know with certainty, of course, but Prescott says he has done all he could do physically and mentally. He is well aware of the returns of previous injured quarterbacks: Tom Brady in 2009 from a knee injury, Peyton Manning in 2012 from a neck injury, Andrew Luck in 2016 from a shoulder injury and Alex Smith from a leg injury in 2018.

Brady, playing for the New England Patriots, had 28 touchdowns and 13 interceptions after missing 15 games the previous season. Manning threw 37 touchdown passes with 11 interceptions in his first season with the Denver Broncos. Luck, who played six seasons for the Indianapolis Colts, had 31 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions in his return.

“When you’re at this position and you want to be great, you study what greats do. All of those guys you named answered their challenge, their personal challenge, their personal adversities, and they beat them,” Prescott said. “On top of that, they kept going. They didn’t sit there and boast on that proud moment of, ‘Hey, I came back from that.’ But yet, they wanted more and they wanted more. That’s, I feel like, who I am and part of the personality I’ve tried to create through this whole challenge.”

play

1:18

Max Kellerman defends his prediction that Dak Prescott will win NFL Comeback Player of the Year.

Smith’s story resonates the most with Prescott because of the similarities of their injuries, however, Smith nearly lost his leg because of serious infections that arose after surgery. It’s an issue Prescott never had to face.

Smith, the 2005 No. 1 overall draft pick who had 17 surgeries before attempting his comeback in 2020, had six touchdown passes and eight interceptions and led the Washington Football Team to a 5-1 record in his six starts. Washington likely would not have won the NFC East last season without Smith.

Brady was 32 when he returned from his knee injury in 2009, and Prescott is 28. Since that season, Brady, now 44, has missed four games in the past 12 years, a remarkable run as he enters his 22nd NFL season.

“We kind of feel invincible at times, especially playing a really physical sport. I think the one thing about getting injured is that we’re not invincible,” Brady said this week.

“You have a different perspective when you come back. Sometimes, you’re really disappointed when you lose games. It’s more disappointing when you don’t get to play in games. I’d rather play and lose than not play at all, as crazy as that sounds. If you’re not playing, then it means you’re at home and I remember that was a tough year just sitting and watching all my teammates. I made a pretty conscious decision that I was going to do everything I could at that point to stay as healthy as I could my entire career.”

Former Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, whom Prescott replaced because of a back injury in 2016, knows the difficulties of returning from injury.

“That’s going to be something that, can he overcome it? Sure. It might be a drive or two,” Romo said of Prescott recently on an NFL on CBS conference call. “… I do think there will be a slight adjustment when the plays are difficult and everything doesn’t go perfect. I think when you’ve played a little bit, that speed, it’s hard to duplicate. But I think Dak will be fine. It’s just a period of time trusting himself and slowly getting back.”

‘He doesn’t slow down’

In order to understand why the Cowboys believe Prescott will be the next quarterback to return successfully, you have to know the path he took to get to this point and why doubt has never creeped into Prescott’s mind.

Ever.

Why would it? He has dealt with personal tragedies, including losing his mother, Peggy, to cancer while in college, and his brother, Jace, to suicide in 2020, with a maturity that defies his age.

Prescott was not a highly sought after recruit in high school, but he had a decorated career at Mississippi State, leading the school to its first No. 1 ranking in both college football polls in 2014. He was a fourth-round draft pick in 2016 and has the number 135 tattooed on his right wrist, signifying his draft status, but he has started every pro game he has played.

“He’s the same guy every day,” Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said. “It’s so important that you have that from your leader — not only to be successful, but to stay successful.”

Prescott is 42-27 as the Cowboys’ starter. He has been named to the Pro Bowl twice and could move inside the top five in team history in passing yards (17,634) and touchdown passes (106), provided he has a healthy season in 2021. He has directed the Cowboys to the playoffs twice in his four full seasons, but what everybody remembers is his most recent game.

It was a beautiful October day against the New York Giants with the sun gleaming through the AT&T Stadium doors. On first down from the New York 27-yard line, Prescott took the snap from Tyler Biadasz and quickly looked right to get the defense to think he was throwing a swing pass.

All along, however, it was a designed quarterback run. He was not touched for the first five yards and eluded a Giants defender for more yardage as he moved to his left.

Giants safety Logan Ryan closed in on Prescott, but the quarterback threw his right hand into Ryan’s helmet, pushing him down. As Ryan fell, his right leg pinned Prescott’s right ankle to the turf, the weight and torque causing the horrific injury.

Prescott tried to jam his contorted ankle back into place to no avail.

The stadium fell silent as the medical staff tended to Prescott. As he was carted off, he chewed on a towel, fending off the pain and emotions as tears streamed down his face.

Two surgeries followed. The first surgery took place on the night of the injury on Oct. 11, and the second, later that winter. The first surgery reset the dislocation and cleaned the area so there would be no infection. The second surgery dealt with potential long-term concerns with the ankle.

The minutes, hours, days and months all blurred together as Prescott went through rehab. He even spent part of a vacation working on strength exercises on a secluded beach less than a month before signing his four-year, $160 million contract in early March.

“When it comes to his work ethic, I don’t think anybody can slow him down,” said Dak’s older brother, Tad, who recalled a workout before the 2020 season when Dak pushed himself too hard. “Before the season started last year, he went into a full body cramp because he felt like he didn’t put enough work in during the day before. I remember our best friend telling him, ‘Hey drink some water. You don’t need to go to that throwing session.’ And he was like, ‘BS, I do.’ He had a great throwing session but as soon as he got home he went into a full body cramp. I had to have some IVs for him because he doesn’t slow down.”

‘I’ve got to be smart’

Prescott has been operating as if there have been no issues with his ankle since spring workouts.

Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore might not call as many quarterback runs, but nobody wants to take away a part of Prescott’s game that has made him special. Since entering the league, Prescott’s 24 rushing touchdowns are third most among quarterbacks, behind former Carolina Panthers and New England Patriots starter Cam Newton (28) and the Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen (26).

“When I get into competition, that’s just who I am, I don’t necessarily think about some of those things,” Prescott said. “But I’ve got to be smart. First down vs. third down are two completely different things, you know what I mean? Two yards to get the first down is different from just trying to make an impactful play that may excite some people. It’s risk vs. reward.”

Prescott showed how smart he could be on July 28 during the Cowboys’ training camp in Oxnard, California.

After going through individual drills, he felt a pain in his side. It only bothered him after the release of a pass. Cowboys athletic trainer Jim Maurer diagnosed it as a latissimus strain, an injury more common in baseball pitchers than quarterbacks.

McCarthy said Prescott would need “a few days,” but that time off turned into two weeks before the QB would throw any kind of pass, and two more weeks before he would take any team drills, fueling speculation about whether he would start Week 1.

  • Was Prescott more hurt than the Cowboys were letting on?

  • Could the quarterback have thrown too much by compensating for the ankle injury?

  • How can Prescott possibly be ready to play against the Buccaneers?

As he went through the mental reps while watching backups Garrett Gilbert, Cooper Rush and Ben DiNucci, Prescott’s patience was tested. He wanted to throw more and make up for lost time. But he has since gained more perspective.

play

1:41

Field Yates and Stephania Bell discuss Dak Prescott’s shoulder injury and whether he is undervalued in fantasy.

“So much has happened to me in the past two years I wouldn’t say I ever thought I was invincible, or didn’t realize how vulnerable I was or how precious life is, to be honest with you,” Prescott said. “I am thankful for every moment. When I talk about these small victories, that is just me being thankful for every moment that I have, not taking anything for granted. … That is part of my mindset that allows me to be here.”

On Aug. 25, Prescott got his wish.

“Everyone shut up now about [No.] 4?” read a text message from a Cowboys staff member about the consternation regarding the quarterback’s health following Prescott’s first full practice.

There would be no more limitations in a practice or a game.

“We’re just playing ball at this point,” Moore said.

For the first time in 340 days, Prescott is back.

“I don’t know anybody that prepares as hard as Dak does,” Tad Prescott said. “As far as his preparation, it’s just another business week, but I’m sure as far as him getting back on the field, that will have a little extra emotion to it. Like he said, he had a thought process of, ‘What if this sport was taken away from me?’

“This is something he truly loves and to be back with his guys, I know he’s antsy, and more than anything, he’s ready to get back out there.”



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Wilson, Darnold focus on opener, not each other

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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Zach Wilson and Sam Darnold met for the first time last offseason at a training facility in San Clemente, California, Darnold’s hometown. At the time, Darnold still was the New York Jets‘ quarterback.

Their next meeting will have greater meaning.

On Sunday, Wilson will face his predecessor, now the Carolina Panthers‘ starter, in a season opener thick with storylines. Both players insisted Wednesday they’re not focused on outdoing the other.

“That’s definitely not something I think about,” Wilson said. “He’s doing his own thing now. He’s got a great situation going for him. I think the organization already decided to go one way, and it’s not because Sam isn’t a good football player. It’s just that they wanted a fresh start.”

Darnold, speaking to reporters in Charlotte, North Carolina, downplayed the significance of the matchup. When it was suggested that it’s not just another game, Darnold replied, “But it is.”

After months of speculation, the Jets traded Darnold to the Panthers on April 5, receiving in return a 2021 sixth-round pick, plus second- and fourth-round picks in 2022. It was a major, if not stunning shift by the Jets, who drafted Darnold third overall in 2018. They once considered him their long-term answer, but he struggled last season. With a new coaching staff in 2021, they decided to start over.

At the time of the trade, they already were focused on Wilson, whom they wound up picking second overall. The Jets actually considered keeping Darnold and drafting Wilson.

“(That idea) went pretty far,” Jets coach Robert Saleh said. “Obviously, you see how far in the process Sam was traded. I’ll go ahead and say it: We pretty much knew we were taking the young kid, so the discussion with Sam was if somebody was going to make an offer we couldn’t refuse.”

Wilson has impressed on an off the field. On Wednesday, he was announced as one of their five permanent captains, as voted by the players. It’s unusual for a rookie to receive that honor. In 2018, Darnold wasn’t a rookie captain.

“It’s a role to take seriously,” Wilson said.

Saleh took notice upon receiving the voting results.

“I was like, ‘Oh, look at that,'” he said. “I think it’s more of a testament to him, the way he has been able to conduct himself here. You go to the cafeteria and he’s hanging out with the O-linemen. He’s got an infectious personality. It’s a credit to him and the way he’s handled himself so far.”

When Wilson and Darnold met before the draft, they had no idea their careers would be intertwined. They exchanged pleasantries that day in California.

“He’s a super-cool guy,” Wilson said. “We just talked about life in the NFL.”

Darnold admitted after the trade that he was stung by the move, saying he always envisioned his entire career with the Jets. Now he has a chance for a small measure of redemption.

“Honestly, we’re all excited in the locker room to play football — play in front of a crowd, especially here in Charlotte,” he said. “Just to have the fans back that’s amazing. We’ve all been looking forward to it a really long time. I’m excited to play the Jets and see what this football team can do. I’m excited to just play consistent and play within myself.”

NFL Nation Panthers reporter David Newton contributed to this report.

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In the business of winning: How a DFS champ used analytics to win $2.5M

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Analytics have become a key component of NFL decision-making in recent years, but they’ve long been the driving force behind Daily Fantasy Sports profitability.

One shining example of the latter is David Bergman, who won the top prize of $2.5 million in DraftKings’ Fantasy Football World Championship on Dec. 20, 2020. Bergman beat out 199 other contestants, each of whom also had to earn their entry through qualifying tournaments held throughout the season to that point.

Bergman isn’t the first to take home a huge DFS prize — our very own Al Zeidenfeld won the Millionaire Maker in 2016 — but his background story hits close to home.

Why? Well, for starters, he is close to home. Bergman is a UConn professor who lives only 25 minutes away from ESPN’s Bristol campus. His department? Business, which is also the background of your favorite fantasy analyst, Field Yat … I mean, me!

Similar to the DFS insight and analysis you see from us here at ESPN, Bergman has used his background in business and his understanding of data analytics to find an edge in the world of DFS.

I spoke to David recently after his win and asked him for some techniques and strategies we can use to win big in DFS.


First of all, congratulations! What was the sweat like leading up to the win?

Such an amazing experience. Seeing the lineup rise throughout the 4 p.m. set of games was exhilarating. My wife and I were juggling our two kids while the lineup was inching up the board, and we put them down to sleep right as Kamara scored the touchdown that basically sealed the victory

For this win specifically, what was your lineup build?

I had three players on the roster who were hardly rostered by anyone else – Chase Edmonds, Durham Smythe, and the Cowboys DST. Edmonds and the Cowboys far exceeded expectations (Dallas was actually the highest scoring DST that week), and Smythe had fine production (9 points) for his super cheap cost. Edmonds was rostered on only one other lineup, and Smythe and the Cowboys DST started on only two other lineups. The rest of my winning lineup was Kyler Murray, Alvin Kamara, Emmanuel Sanders, DeAndre Hopkins, Calvin Ridley, and Tony Pollard (who was starting in place of the injured Ezekiel Elliott that week). The “build” itself came out of a combination of matching high-end receivers with the aforementioned players, based on the player projections I had for the week.

Is that you preferred build or do you have a few go-tos?

I use the same lineup building routine each time, though because the player projections and salary costs change, each week you see very different lineup selections.

We often teach our listeners/readers about stacking. How often do you utilize it and how many teammates do you like to include with the quarterback?

Stacking is a useful tool. I usually include at least one (and most of the time two) “pass-catcher(s)” stacked with a QB in a given lineup. That “pass-catcher” can be a TE, WR, or a certain set of RBs. Guys like Kamara are pass catchers but Derrick Henry isn’t.

What about “bringing it back” with a player (or two) from the other team?

I don’t typically employ this strategy. You’ll notice that my winning lineup did not have any players on opposing teams.

Do you usually try to incorporate secondary stacks, perhaps a DST with a running back?

A QB against an opposing DST never makes sense to me, but a RB and a DST certainly can. In order for a QB to have a great game, his offense has to score a lot of points since he only gets 1 point for every 25 passing yards and 4 points for a TD pass. A RB can have a solid or even great game while the score remains low. Those types of stacks can be useful, but I don’t always incorporate them.

What about the flex? Running back only or do you consider a wide receiver or tight end?

Both DraftKings and FanDuel have a PPR point system (1 PPR in DK, 0.5 in FD), which boosts the WR and TE scoring relative to RBs. Due to those scoring rules, I keep the FLEX position as “flexible” as possible.

The key to winning a big tournament has been understanding projected rostership. How do utilize it?

I can’t give away all of my secrets here! One tip to keep in mind is that backups getting a spot start can be hugely valuable. Their costs are usually low and other DFS participants tend to ignore them. You’ll notice my winning lineup had Durham Smythe (in for an injured Mike Gesicki that week) and Tony Pollard starting in Zeke’s place, as mentioned above. And though Kenyan Drake was listed ahead of Chase Edmonds on Arizona’s depth chart, Edmonds had been getting double digit “opportunities” (either rushes or targets in the passing game) pretty much all season. Just because a backup is forced to start in a given week, most teams don’t completely abandon their team philosophy and game plan. The Cowboys still want to run the ball, and the Dolphins rely on a short passing game, which is ideal for tight end production.

How do you handle the players who are projected to be highly rostered in a given week?

I want those players in some lineups so that I don’t miss out on a potential big game, but I want to be underexposed to players who will be in a significant percentage of lineups in the field. If that player has a disappointing game, I’d have a nice edge.

There are always players who jump out as elite values every week, so how do you diversify while also getting those core players in as many lineups as possible?

The rule of thumb is to swap in two or three different players as you go entry-to-entry and I agree with that. It’s okay if you really like a stack and you should feel free to load up on it. That may hurt your bottom line at times, but would obviously be very beneficial if it hits.

I think in 2020, more so than usual, hitting on a slate breaker was massively important in cash and, of course, tournaments. Do you have any strategies to identify a slate breaker?

First of all, realize that a “slate breaker” isn’t nearly as important in smaller entrant contests. In larger ones, sure – it becomes nearly impossible to win if you don’t have the highest-scoring player per dollar. My best advice there is similar to what I said above about backups getting spot starts for injured starters.

Do you need a ton of lineups to win?

No. A few years ago, somebody won the standard Sunday millionaire contest (which allows participants to enter up to 150 lineups and pays $1M to the top scoring entry) with just a single entry. It certainly increases your probability of winning by having more lineups, but each entry also costs more in entry fees. Since your total entry fees increase linearly with your total number of entries in any given contest, the better question is whether increasing your entries increases your win probability at a higher rate than your costs. I’d say that’s still an open question, and one that I’m currently exploring.

Do you use an optimizer?

There are a number of optimizers available, but I do all of my lineup building without any of the DFS optimizers.

This one is close to my heart – what is the value of player projections?

They’re the most important ingredient in playing DFS successfully. There are a ton of websites offering player projections, some for free and some for a fee. Suffice to say, “the wisdom of crowds” (i.e., combining multiple sources) is good advice for starters. The actual projection you have matters not only because of magnitude, but also because it ranks the players in the slate by value. The rank can be nearly as important as the actual value.

Do you rely on projected points/salary to identify value plays?

For sure. That’s as valuable as the projections themselves.

When you’re looking at a player, what variables determine your exposure? PPG, Matchup, Price, Rostership, Vegas line, etc.?

They all matter. Any professional player is thinking about matchups, game lines, etc. To beat the professionals, you have to think like a professional. Don’t shy away from more data.

When evaluating your winning lineup, you talked about your DST target. Do you prioritize DST when setting your lineup or is it whatever fits? If so, how do you identify the best plays?

Picking the right DST can be the difference maker. Both the Cardinals and the Cowboys had great Week 14s and Week 15s. (Week 15 was when the DK Championship occurred.). I think the best strategy is simply to diversify. Instead of locking into the same defense or two, cover as many as possible in your lineups. One way to accomplish this is to avoid always using all $50,000 of your budget. By leaving cash on the table, you avoid being stuck on one defense.

The rise in NFL scoring is sometimes frustrating as a prognosticator as it’s easier to project touches and yardage than it is touchdowns. How do we take advantage of this instead of viewing it as a detriment to strong projections?

The scoring systems can help mitigate that. As stated before, DraftKings offers full PPR and FanDuel is just half PPR. Plus, DK offers bonuses for yardage milestones (100 rushing/receiving, 300 passing) while FD doesn’t. With those DK rules, the variability of scoring touchdowns becomes less relevant in projections than it would in FD. If you’re making projections, projecting players at fractional touchdowns can also help.

Related to that, variance is obviously a major nuisance but accepting and understanding it can be a big advantage over time. How do you do exactly that?

As my buddy tells me each week: “May the variance be with you.” That’s my motto. Don’t hate variance, love it. Find some players with high variance and couple them with some solid starters. Also, don’t worry when variance goes in the wrong direction in a given week. Part of what analytics teaches you is that you can make the right decision and the outcome can turn out wrong. Analytics allows you to shift probabilities more in your favor, but no outcome is ever certain. Take an example from poker. Suppose you are dealt pocket aces, and get someone to match your all-in call. If you lose that hand, did you make an incorrect choice? Of course not. You made the right choice. It just didn’t work out that time. Same applies to DFS. There can be a string of weeks where you miss, but if you feel your process is right, sticking to it can eventually realize a win. If you lose with pocket aces once, would you shy away from going all-in again?

You mention a lot about opportunity, which aligns with my “Volume is King” philosophy, but how much do you weight efficiency? An example would be Frank Gore, who gets decent usage but has almost zero upside. How does your model account for this?

I think you want to think about the particular contest you are entering. If you are playing against 200,000 people, Gore might not be the right choice. If you are playing against 100 people, Gore might be great since you won’t generally need an outlandish score to win.

With most players aware of strategies like stacking and considering projected rostership, how can we find an edge in 2021?

What gets us to the next level? Honing your projection model. Suppose you had the best projections in the world. It would be easy to win. Without high quality projections, how are you going to compete? Also, and I confess that I’m not at this level yet, but finding a way to follow as many teams as possible (in as much detail as possible) by reading the local sports reporters could be advantageous toward understanding who might be the focus of a team’s offense in a given week. Realize that most DFS players are using national sources, like ESPN, for their information, which is great and gives you the overall view of what a slate has to offer. However, local sports reporters — like ESPN’s NFL Nation team, for example — might have a better feel for local teams.

I’ll also add that a lot of people hone in on one quarterback and build many of their lineups around him, but keep in mind that a lot of quarterbacks tend to perform well in a given week. Don’t center your plan around only one quarterback. And, if you’re looking for a wider range of outcomes at wide receiver, consider digging deeper on the depth chart, as opposed to No. 1 wide receivers, as everyone knows they will generally see a decent share of the targets.

Any other advice for those trying to be the next to earn that big prize?

You gotta be in it to win it! Don’t be scared of backups. And remember: variance is your friend.

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Source: Saints working on trade for Texans’ Roby

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The New Orleans Saints are finally making the splash move at cornerback that they have been hinting at all offseason, as they are in the process of trading for Houston Texans veteran Bradley Roby, a source confirmed to ESPN.

Terms of the deal, which was first reported by NFL Network, have not been disclosed.

Roby is a former first-round draft pick of the Denver Broncos who spent the past two years in Houston and has started 49 career games with 10 interceptions.

The 29-year-old Roby is due to make $10 million in salary and bonuses this season in the second year of a three-year, $31.5 million extension that he signed with the Texans last year. He will miss the first game of the season, however, as part of a six-game suspension that began in 2020 for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.

The Saints have identified cornerback as a “must-fill” position ever since they released former starter Janoris Jenkins in March as part of a massive salary-cap purge and then lost one potential starting contender, Patrick Robinson, to a surprise retirement early in training camp. They even attempted to trade up nearly 20 spots in the NFL draft to land top prospects Jaycee Horn or Pat Surtain II.

New Orleans signed experienced veteran Desmond Trufant on Monday to compete with Ken Crawley and rookie Paulson Adebo for the No. 2 starting cornerback job across from Pro Bowler Marshon Lattimore. However, Roby now becomes the front-runner to lock down that job following his suspension.

Roby, listed at 5-foot-11, 194 pounds, began his career in a rotation with the Broncos for four seasons before becoming a full-time starter in 2018. He signed a one-year, $10 million contract with the Texans in 2019 that was described as a “prove-it” deal before re-signing with them in 2020.

In 99 career games, Roby has 10 interceptions, 75 passes defensed, eight forced fumbles, four sacks and 311 tackles.

Roby now joins Lattimore, safety Malcolm Jenkins, wide receiver Michael Thomas and others in the Ohio State-to-New Orleans pipeline that has been prominent over the past decade.

As for Houston, Roby was the Texans’ clear No. 1 cornerback entering the season, despite the suspension. After trading Roby, the Texans have six cornerbacks on their roster: Desmond King, Terrance Mitchell, Vernon Hargreaves, Tremon Smith, Tavierre Thomas and the newly acquired Jimmy Moreland.

ESPN’s Sarah Barshop contributed to this report.

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Will New England Patriots see results after spending $163 million in free agency?

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — If recent history holds true to form, the free-spending 2021 New England Patriots should receive a bump from their seven victories earned last season. The bigger challenge will be sustaining that beyond this year.

Consider that from 2016 to 2020, the team that spent the most guaranteed money in NFL free agency improved by an average of 5.4 wins that season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The issue was the following season, as teams that spent the most guaranteed money in free agency from 2016 to 2019 had an average decline of 5.5 wins in Year 2.

Now coach Bill Belichick’s Patriots join the mix, having smashed the NFL record set by the 2020 Miami Dolphins ($147.2 million). The Patriots guaranteed $163 million in unrestricted free agency, which owner Robert Kraft has acknowledged is risky business.

It is an approach usually reserved for more desperate teams. The Patriots haven’t qualified.

But coming off an uncharacteristic 7-9 season, albeit in a COVID-19 year, Belichick backed up the Brinks truck, and in turn, the short-term picture — starting with Sunday’s season opener against the visiting Dolphins (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS) — looks much better.

“It was different. You know, it was definitely different,” said Cris Collinsworth, the analyst for NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” who will be in town for a highly anticipated Week 4 matchup when Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers visit the Patriots.

“I thought they played on the minus side of the ledger a season ago because of all their COVID opt-outs and various things that happened, having to change their offense to accommodate Cam [Newton]. I thought there was a feeling of ‘let’s get back to Patriot football.'”

The Patriots had a league-high eight opt-outs last season, led by returning linebacker Dont’a Hightower. And to Collinsworth’s point, Belichick had said the Patriots didn’t have the depth they had been accustomed to in 2020, in part because of a tight salary cap after having “sold out and won three Super Bowls, played in a fourth, and played in an AFC Championship Game” from 2014 to 2019.

After last year’s reset, New England attacked free agency relentlessly, in part because of a point Kraft highlighted: Recent drafts haven’t been as fruitful as desired. One example of this was reflected in how punter Jake Bailey became their first home-grown Pro Bowler last season since linebacker Jamie Collins in 2015.

Most notable to Collinsworth is the intention to return to a multiple-tight-end offense, a staple of Belichick teams that disappeared in 2020 after it helped produce six Super Bowl championships. So the Patriots paid big for arguably the top two available tight ends — Jonnu Smith of the Tennessee Titans (four years, $50 million, $31.25 million guaranteed) and Hunter Henry of the Los Angeles Chargers (three years, $37.5 million, $24 million guaranteed). Henry, who injured his shoulder in training camp, said this week he expects to play Sunday.

Ideally, the Patriots would have had tight ends they drafted and developed to form a one-two combination, similar to the early-to-mid 2000s when they had first-round draft picks Daniel Graham and Benjamin Watson, and the early 2010s with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

But while free agency often comes with a “buyer beware” warning, the Patriots also viewed it as a more unique opportunity this year — a result, in part, of the NFL’s declining salary cap (the limit of $182.5 million per team for 2021 was a long-anticipated 8% decrease from last season) — that curbed competition from other teams.

The Patriots were operating with a surplus after going lean in 2020, and Kraft cited it as an example of the team trying to “take advantage of inefficiencies in the market.”

So the owner who paid $172 million to buy the team in 1994 almost matched that total in free-agent spending this offseason.

In addition to tight ends Smith and Henry, the other big-ticket signings were outside linebacker Matt Judon (four years, $54.5 million, with $30 million guaranteed); defensive back Jalen Mills (four years, $24 million, with $9 million guaranteed); defensive tackle Davon Godchaux (two years, $15 million, with $9 million guaranteed); linebacker Kyle Van Noy (two years, $12 million, with $6 million guaranteed) and receivers Nelson Agholor (two years, $22 million, with $16 million guaranteed) and Kendrick Bourne (three years, $15 million, with $5 million guaranteed).

“Free agency can help you or hurt you,” said longtime Dallas Cowboys executive Gil Brandt, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2019. “A guy can get fat on free agency, and he doesn’t play the same way he played when he was looking for more money.

“But I still think that [Belichick] can build a team through draft choices and free agency. Now, it’s a lot harder to build it through draft choices when you’re picking 27th, 26th, 28th, 30th — way down there, like he had been. So it that can lead you to concentrate on free agents.”

Risky approach

The 2011 Philadelphia Eagles are the team often mentioned when it comes to the dangers of building a team through free agency.

play

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Harry Douglas and Max Kellerman outline what they expect from the Patriots and rookie QB Mac Jones in 2021.

They were NFC East champions the year before, finishing 10-6 with Michael Vick under center and losing to the Green Bay Packers in the playoffs. Philadelphia then loaded up with the likes of cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha (five years, $60 million, with $25 million guaranteed), defensive end Jason Babin (five years, $28 million), cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (acquired in a trade from Arizona), defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins (five years, $25 million) and quarterback Vince Young (one year, up to $5.5 million), among others.

Young, of course, had referred to them as the “Dream Team” — which hovered over the Eagles all season as they crashed and burned after a 1-4 start, needing to win their final four games to pull out an 8-8 finish.

But more recently, teams that have taken an aggressive approach in free agency have often experienced a notable immediate improvement.

The 2016 New York Giants, who had guaranteed a league-high $107 million in free agency the prior offseason with top targets Olivier Vernon (pass-rusher), Janoris Jenkins (cornerback) and Damon Harrison (defensive tackle), improved to 11-5 from 6-10 the season before. Ben McAdoo was in his first year as coach, taking over for Tom Coughlin.

Ditto for the 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars. They changed coaches, with Doug Marrone taking over for Gus Bradley, and spent a league-leading $71.6 million guaranteed in free agency, headlined by defensive lineman Calais Campbell, cornerback A.J. Bouye and safety Barry Church. They jumped to 10-6 from a 3-13 season.

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USC icon and Pats HOFer Cunningham, 71, dies

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Former USC and New England Patriots fullback Sam “Bam” Cunningham died Tuesday at his home in Inglewood, California, according to USC. He was 71.

The cause of death had yet to be determined.

Cunningham, who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1992, is widely recognized for helping speed up the process of integration in football programs across the South. Cunningham ran for 135 yards and two touchdowns as USC beat an all-white Alabama team to open the 1970 season. That performance, coupled with those of his Black teammates, was pivotal in Alabama coach Bear Bryant’s decision to recruit Black players.

“What they saw was the future,” Cunningham told ESPN in 2016. “Their team was eventually going to be integrated.”

In 1971, Alabama had Black players on scholarship for the first time and played for the national title. The decade became a standout era for Bryant and the Crimson Tide as they went on to win to more national championships.

Jerry Claiborne, a former Bryant assistant, famously said, “Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King did in 20 years.”

Lynn Swann, a teammate of Cunningham’s at USC, said, “The entire SEC, especially Alabama, owes Sam Cunningham a tremendous debt of thanks and appreciation for his play that opened the door to Black athletes in 1970.

“There are a lot of athletes who have done their share and more to end discrimination in so many ways. But Sam opened a huge door in the South and in that conference, which did more for minorities and young Black men to have the opportunity to play in the SEC and get an education.”

Cunningham earned All-American honors in 1972, when he captained the Trojans to a national championship. One of his best college performances came against Ohio State in the 1973 Rose Bowl, when he ran for four touchdowns, earning MVP honors, in a 42-17 win.

He ran for 1,579 yards and 23 touchdowns in his USC career, including 13 TDs in 1972. The Trojans had a record of 24-8-2 during his three years when Cunningham earned the nickname “Bam” for his bruising goal line dives.

“It became a bit of a legend with Sam going over the top of an offensive line,” Swann said. “Nobody could stop him.”

Cunningham was drafted No. 11 overall in the 1973 NFL draft by the Patriots and went on to play nine seasons for the team, becoming the franchise’s all-time leading rusher.

He was a Pro Bowl selection in 1978, when the Patriots set an NFL record for rushing yards as a team with 3,165. The mark stood until 2019, when it was broken by the Baltimore Ravens.

Cunningham finished his NFL career with 5,453 yards rushing and 49 touchdowns before retiring after the 1982 season.

He was later inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame (1992), USC Athletics Hall of Fame (2001) and Patriots Half of Fame (2010).

“Sam ‘Bam’ Cunningham was one of my favorite players throughout the ’70s and my sons all loved him,” Patriots owner Robert Kraft said in a statement. “After I bought the team in 1994, it was my honor to welcome him back to the team on multiple occasions, recognizing him as a 50th anniversary team member and again for his induction into the Patriots Hall of Fame.

“As much as I admired him as a player, my affection for him only grew after spending time with him and learning more about him as a person. He made a tremendous impact, both on and off the field, and was beloved by his teammates. As a Patriots Hall of Famer, Sam’s legacy and contributions will be preserved and celebrated forever, but today his loss is felt with heavy hearts.”

After his playing career, Cunningham worked as a landscape contractor in California. He was born and raised in Santa Barbara.

Cunningham is survived by his wife, Cine, daughter Samahndi, brothers Bruce, Anthony and Randall, who starred as a quarterback in the NFL for 16 years, niece Vashti Cunningham, a world champion high jumper and nephew Randall II.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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