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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Sure, the 75-yard-catch-and-run touchdown against the rival New Orleans Saints last Sunday was special. So was becoming the first rookie in Atlanta Falcons franchise history to catch three touchdown passes in a game.

But for Calvin Ridley, the signature moment of his rookie season might have occurred months ago and had nothing to do with reaching the end zone. It was a touchdown of a different sort.

Ridley headed home to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, during a break and called his mother, Kassna Daniels, upon landing. He could feel the excitement in his mother’s tone as she just picked up the Cadillac Escalade he promised to buy for her, along with a house, after Calvin was drafted 26th overall.

“I was real happy because she was real happy,” Ridley said. “That’s the goal: Give your mom the things she wants in life. She worked hard all of her life. It’s time for me to pay her. Now’s she looking for that house.”
Falcons rookie receiver Calvin Ridley is tied with A.J. Green in touchdown catches with four through three weeks. Mark Humphrey/AP Photo
Ridley, who signed a four-year, $10.9 million contract with $9.9 million guaranteed, might be able to afford to buy his mother her own island if he continues to perform at a high level for years to come. His Week 3 outing against the Saints, which included seven catches for 146 yards to go with the trio of scores — not to mention a cameo as a running back — put the rest of the league on high notice, as if having to defend Julio Jones wasn’t enough for opposing coaches to worry about.

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“Calvin was an outstanding prospect; watched him since he was a freshman at Alabama,” said Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, who has the task of slowing down Ridley on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS). “The game he had is not surprising. I just think he has the explosive speed. He has the catch range. He has the feel of a receiver. He’s a very gifted young player, understanding how to use his body and play receiver. And it transfers well to the NFL.”

Ridley, a nominee for NFL Rookie of the Week, enters his fourth game with four touchdown receptions, tied for the league-lead alongside Bengals veteran A.J. Green. He has 11 receptions for 210 yards on 17 targets with 10 first downs and 82 yards after the catch — all after going without a catch on two targets in a season-opening loss at Philadelphia.

Pro Football Focus ranks Ridley as its top-rated rookie receiver, ahead of Carolina’s DJ Moore and Arizona’s Christian Kirk. Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian constantly raves about Ridley’s double moves, a tribute to just how great a route-runner Ridley truly is. And Falcons coach Dan Quinn was quick to point out that Ridley’s success has to do with his unique skill level and not just about “13” defenders swarming Jones and leaving Ridley open.

Equally impressive is how Ridley quickly earned the respect of his teammates.

“He creates unbelievable separation,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “His acceleration out of cuts is really good. His patience for a young receiver versus man-to-man coverage, knowing how to win and the timing of the play, all of that stuff usually takes a lot of time to learn. He just does it very naturally. … I think that’s been the reason for this early success: He’s been able to beat man-to-man coverage very well.”

It doesn’t hurt to have a relentless work ethic.

Catching on
Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Thump-thump.

Everyone could hear the Jugs machine echoing in the background for a good 10 minutes following Wednesday’s practice before the pouring rain came. To no one’s surprise, it was Ridley getting in extra work, just like he did before practice started.

Part of Ridley’s Jugs routine is standing right in front of the six-speed machine and catching the ball as it is ejected, at speeds up to 75 miles per hour. It was something Ridley picked up from teammate Mohamed Sanu.

“Mo told me when you get real close and you shoot the Jugs really hard, it means you’ve got to squeeze that ball,” Ridley explained. “It just helps me squeeze the ball better because sometimes, I catch it and my hands will be like … I just want to squeeze the ball more.”
Calvin Ridley stands super close to the Jugs machine when catching footballs in order to make his “hands stronger.” Vaughn McClure/ESPN
Ridley uses the Jugs machine every day and tries to catch, at minimum, 50 footballs. Interestingly enough, his mentor, Jones, doesn’t believe in using the machine because Jones thinks it fails to simulate how an actual pass comes at you. The ball is too perfect.

“He’s totally right,” Ridley said. “That’s why I move. I move my arms, or I move my body when I move out to catch. But when I’m close, I just want to work on getting my hands stronger.”

At one point, Ridley contorted his body in a manner where he basically sat down yet still raised his hands up to catch the shooting footballs. That’s far from the only element to Ridley perfecting his craft.

“I work on a lot of stuff out there,” he said. “It might be one period, I’m working on just my feet, just releases, my head, my stick, my hands, just making sure they’re out in front. I just do all that on my own.”

It doesn’t go unnoticed.

“Just notice how professional he is already this early in his career,” tight end Austin Hooper said. “His ability to just go out there and work, it’s second to none in terms of rookies I’ve been around. His capacity for knowledge, he’s very smart. He knows the right position to be in. Plus, he’s incredibly athletic and knows how to create separation.”

Brotherly love
If there’s a friendly competition going on, Ridley wouldn’t reveal it.

His brother, Riley, is a junior wide receiver at Georgia. According to listed numbers, Riley is an inch taller and 10 pounds heavier.
Calvin Ridley gets emotional at his watch party in Florida, after being drafted by the Falcons. Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/AP
Just like Calvin led the Falcons in receiving last week, Riley led the No. 2-ranked Bulldogs with five catches for 87 yards and a 33-yard touchdown in a 43-29 win against Missouri. For the season, Riley Ridley has 13 catches for 169 yards with three touchdowns through four games.

“Competition? Nah. Not right now,” Calvin Ridley said of his brother. “I just want him to do good. I talk to him pretty much every day. During the week, we won’t talk much about football.

“He didn’t make it to our last game. He can’t really make it here because it’s hard with college. He’s tired, probably, and he’s got study hall and all that stuff.”

Ridley will try to see his brother play this season when he can, after the two squared off in last season’s College Football Playoff National Championship, won by Alabama. Their mother made headlines for wearing one of those split T-shirts representing both sons.
One NFL evaluator broke down Riley Ridley’s pro potential.

“He’s a second-or-third round draft pick,” the evaluator said. “He’s just like Calvin. Both have good hands. Both have got long arms. They both have good instincts. They’re fast, just not super-fast. They’re good players. And this is [Riley’s] first year starting full-time, so he’ll get to do more things.”

Of course, Riley Ridley hopes to join his brother in the NFL. For now, Calvin is representing the family rather well.

“I’ve got to go out here and do what I’ve got to do to make my family happy,” Ridley said.

He’s off to quite a fast start.

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GREEN BAY, Wis. — While the feeling in the Green Bay Packers’ locker room is that quarterback Aaron Rodgers will try to play Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings despite his ailing left knee, the team isn’t ready to say that just yet.

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Aaron Rodgers said he could not commit to playing Sunday, but Vikings coach Mike Zimmer expects the Packers QB to be out there since “he walks on water.”

Rodgers won’t practice again on Thursday but will try to do more in the rehab portion of his work than he did Wednesday, according to coach Mike McCarthy.

“This is no layup,” McCarthy said Thursday morning. “That’s why it’s a day-to-day situation.”

Rodgers said Wednesday that he would have no issue playing Sunday without any practice reps this week.

“The vibe feels like he’s going to try [to play],” one Packers player told ESPN.com.

Rodgers has been going through his normal week of off-the-field preparation while backups DeShone Kizer and Tim Boyle have taken the snaps in practice.

“You’ve got two types of environments to prepare you for games — you’ve got the classroom environment, and you have obviously the practice environment,” McCarthy said. “So with him in the rehab group, he’s full-bore ahead in the classroom and all the different meetings. Today’s a very heavy situational day, so that’s where his involvement is.”

Rodgers revealed Wednesday that he has a “sprained” knee, although he would not provide any further details about the injury. He missed the final three series in the first half of Sunday’s season opener against the Bears after defensive end Roy Robertson-Harris fell on Rodgers’ left knee during a sack.

After being carted to the locker room, Rodgers returned in the second half to rally the Packers from a 20-0 deficit to a 24-23 win, matching the largest comeback of Rodgers’ NFL career.

“We had a great conversation at halftime Sunday night and came to the conclusion that I could go back out there if I could deal with the pain,” Rodgers said Wednesday.

He said the pain and swelling increased after the game.

“You hate that you’re dealing with something like this in the first week, but you feel similar to this Week 13, 14, 15, 16, 17,” Rodgers said. “If you’re fortunate to stay healthy the entire season you’re going to get banged up at some point. Obviously, I’ve dealt with foot injuries, calf injuries, hamstring, you know, lower extremities and played with it, so hopefully, I’ll be able to be back out there Sunday.”

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Chicago Bears linebacker Leonard Floyd, the team’s top edge rusher, had surgery Sunday to repair a fracture in his right hand.

Bears head coach Matt Nagy confirmed the surgery to reporters Monday at Halas Hall, adding that the procedure “went well.”

“We’re staying optimistic for Green Bay,” Nagy said, expressing hope that Floyd would be on the field for the Bears’ regular-season opener against the rival Packers.

Nagy described the fracture as on Floyd’s index and middle finger. It occurred on a cut block late in the first quarter of the Bears’ preseason game against the Broncos; Floyd hit the ground and injured his hand as he braced himself.

“[He was] just unlucky,” Nagy said.

“I talked to him,” Bears defensive end Roy Robertson-Harris added. “I think Leonard’s going to be fine. He’s going to come back and rush his butt off.”

Floyd, the ninth overall pick in the 2016 draft, has played only 22 combined games in the past two seasons due to injuries.

With three weeks to go before the start of the regular seaso, the Bears are testing their depth at the outside linebacker position. Floyd’s backup Aaron Lynch has a hamstring injury and hasn’t played in the preseason. The other backups at the position are Kasim Edebali, Kylie Fitts and Isaiah Irving.

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OXNARD, Calif. – The Dallas Cowboys will call to an end their time in California on Friday, returning to their Texas roots.
Ezekiel Elliott has looked more relaxed and ready to roll during camp. He won’t get much preseason action, but he looks poised for a strong regular-season campaign. David Dennis/Icon Sportswire
In truth, a 53-man roster the Cowboys would pick today would not look all that different than the one they will pick Sept. 1. Injuries, waiver-wire claims and potential trades will change some things, but there won’t be many surprises.

So what have we learned and what remains to be settled after 13 practices – 10 of which have been in full pads – in Oxnard?

What we’ve learned

Ezekiel Elliott is ready. His only work in the preseason will come Aug. 26 against the Arizona Cardinals, but he has shown he is ready for the Sept. 9 regular-season opener against the Carolina Panthers. Without the six-game suspension looming over his head, Elliott has been much more relaxed, looking like the fun-loving player from his rookie season instead of the brooding player who did not interact with many people last year. Elliott spent 20 minutes after one practice making sure he signed autographs for an entire youth football team that was in attendance. A happy Zeke makes for a happy Cowboys offense and make no mistake, he will be at the epicenter of what they do in 2018.

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Kris Richard’s impact – Richard has brought a different attitude and technique to the Cowboys’ corners. No longer are they playing off and soft. They are challenging receivers at the line of scrimmage. They want to use the length of Byron Jones and the physicality of Chidobe Awuzie at the line of scrimmage to disrupt the offense’s timing. The defense has also been more aggressive in its pass rushing, sending one linebacker more than Rod Marinelli has done in previous camps, and that’s another sign of Richard’s tone-setting.

Tavon Austin is a receiver – When the Cowboys acquired him on draft weekend, some thought he would be used as a running back. Not so much. So far in camp he has lined up at running back twice. At receiver, he has lined up all over the formation. He has made plays down the field and underneath. He had a career-high 59 carries last year for the Los Angeles Rams, but given how much work Elliott will get it’s hard to see him getting nearly four carries a game.

Jaylon Smith can move – A year ago, the Cowboys knew Smith would be able to contribute as he returned from the serious knee injury that caused him to miss rookie season. Now running without the brace that helped keep his foot flexed, he is showing what Garrett has called an ability to play spontaneously. In one practice, he ran stride for stride with wide receiver Cole Beasley down the middle of the field. That’s impressive for a 245-pound linebacker.

What remains unsettled

Finding a third corner – Anthony Brown has been working as the nickel corner since the offseason program. While he has had two interceptions in camp practices, he had two penalties in the preseason opener against the San Francisco 49ers. Jourdan Lewis has been working as the second-team slot corner and might get a shot with the No. 1 group even if he does not have the size Richard covets at cornerback.

The receiver rotation – Allen Hurns missed a few days with a groin injury. Deonte Thompson has been working through a sore Achilles and has not practiced. Cole Beasley is working through a groin strain. Terrance Williams is coming back from offseason foot surgery. Noah Brown has not taken part in a full-padded practice because of a hamstring strain. That has played a part in the passing game’s inconsistencies. The Cowboys need to get the receivers they are counting on for Week 1 to get healthy so they can get on the same page with Dak Prescott.
Manning the nose – If there is one spot Rod Marinelli has not quite gotten to his liking since joining the Cowboys, it has been at nose tackle. Nick Hayden was solid. Terrell McClain was able to get a big free agency deal. Last year, Maliek Collins played out of position as the nose tackle. So far in camp, Datone Jones and Antwaun Woods have taken the one-technique snaps with the starters. Woods started against San Francisco and has impressed Marinelli, but Garrett said there is nothing settled about the defensive tackle rotation at the moment.

Safety depth – Most of the talk about the Cowboys and a safety has been around the possibility of seeing Earl Thomas in a Dallas uniform. The Cowboys like what they have seen from Jeff Heath and Xavier Woods, and Kavon Frazier can be solid, but they don’t have a fourth safety as of yet. Marqueston Huff suffered a groin injury in the first preseason game, which has put undrafted Tyree Robinson in with the second team now. Jones and Awuzie can play safety in a pinch, but they would rather not have to make that kind of change.

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All observers of Philadelphia Eagles training camp appear in lockstep: Carson Wentz looks so impressive in his rehab, it would be a surprise if he wasn’t cleared to play Week 1.

“I think if you didn’t know he had the injury or had the brace on his leg, you’d probably assess that everything was good,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson admitted, via NBC Sports Philadelphia.

Wentz participated in 11-on-11 drills on Friday and Saturday, the latter being the team’s first padded practice of the year. The QB was held back on Sunday, relegated to 7-on-7s and individual drills.
Pederson said the Eagles will continue to take it cautiously on a week-to-week basis with the quarterback.

“It’s just the plan that we have,” Pederson said. “I’m not going to divulge the plan, but there’s a plan. There’s a progression. There are steps that we’re going to take with him. But this is all a part of that progression.”

Wentz suffered a torn ACL and LCL on Dec. 10. More than seven months later he’s looking more mobile by the day. Reporter Jimmy Kempski of the Philly Voice provided an excellent look at Wentz’s progress after Saturday’s padded practice, noting that the quarterback appears to have regained his agility and famed elusiveness.

The Eagles will continue to stick to their plan in bringing Wentz back slowly. NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo has reported that the Eagles don’t necessarily need Wentz to play in the preseason in order for him to start Week 1.

Barring a setback, it would seem a surprise at this stage if Wentz isn’t in the huddle to open the season for the defending Super Bowl champions.

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COSTA MESA, Calif. — Anthony Lynn got his first taste of calling plays while serving as the offensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills in 2016. And Lynn wasn’t sure he wanted to give it up.

Hired as the head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers in January of last year, Lynn debated whether to continue to call plays. Ultimately, Lynn decided an experienced playcaller in Ken Whisenhunt was a better alternative.

With defensive coordinator Gus Bradley and special-teams coordinator George Stewart also part of his coaching staff, Lynn could operate as the CEO on the field.

“I was brought here to lead,” Lynn said about his decision. “I was brought here to carry out a vision and help everyone, not just the offense.”

However, other offensive coordinators have taken a much different tack.

The Oakland Raiders and Chicago Bears hired offensive-minded coaches in Jon Gruden and Matt Nagy this offseason, following a successful blueprint the Los Angeles Rams and the San Francisco 49ers used in 2017 when they hired Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan.

HEAD COACH + PLAY CALLER
Heading into the 2018 season, 14 of the 32 head coaches will also serve as the playcallers on offense:

TEAM COACH
Bears Matt Nagy
Packers Mike McCarthy
Texans Bill O’Brien
Colts Frank Reich
Chiefs Andy Reid
Rams Sean McVay
Dolphins Adam Gase
Saints Sean Payton
Giants Pat Shurmur
Raiders Jon Gruden
Eagles Doug Pederson
49ers Kyle Shanahan
Buccaneers Dirk Koetter
Redskins Jay Gruden
Of the seven new head coaches hired in the NFL this offseason, four of them are former offensive coordinators who will call their own plays in 2018. That increased the number of head coaches who will call their own plays to 14 out of 32 — nearly half the league. According to ESPN Insider Mike Sando, that number is the most head coaches who have also served as offensive playcallers in the NFL going back at least a decade.

That’s up from 11 of 32 in 2017. Traditionally, NFL owners have wanted a head coach to act as a CEO for the football side of the organization.

However, with the intense focus on the quarterback position and with playcalling being such an important part of game days, former offensive coordinators are choosing to continue doing what they are best at: calling plays.

And that includes the head of the Super Bowl champions, Philadelphia Eagles coach Doug Pederson.

Pederson offered this advice to his former offensive coordinator Frank Reich, who will — you guessed it — call plays as the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts:

“The biggest challenge is just getting your own study time in because of all the other things you have to do,” Pederson said at the NFL combine in February. “Leading the football team, meeting with doctors, meeting with [GM] Howie [Roseman], the personnel department. Meeting with the [team] president, meeting with the owner.

“Those are things that can take away your time during the week, and it’s just finding time to get your own study and preparation in and being in a position to help your team. That’s the one thing that if I ever get nervous about a game, it’s, ‘How well did I study during the week?’ I think that’s the biggest challenge for a head coach who calls plays, is being able to do that for his football team.”

Most new head coaches who continue to call plays came up as assistants under someone who operated the same way. It’s natural not wanting to give up the specific skill that resulted in them getting a head-coaching job.

Rick Neuheisel spent 12 seasons as a head coach in college at Colorado, Washington and UCLA. Neuheisel also served as an offensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL and said that during his time with the Buffaloes, he shared playcalling duties with then-offensive coordinator Karl Dorrell.

Neuheisel noted his reluctance to give up calling plays.

“It’s auto pilot as opposed to holding the stick,” Neuheisel said. “When you’re holding the stick of an airplane, there’s an adrenaline to that, rather than sitting back and letting the thing fly itself. So when your hand is on the wheel, there’s no question that feels like the real, live deal.”

Mike Holmgren led two teams to the Super Bowl in the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks, serving as a head coach who also called plays. Holmgren learned how to handle that role while working as a quarterbacks coach for former 49ers head coach Bill Walsh.

“I thought about it on occasion, just handing this to somebody, let them do it and take that responsibility off my plate,” Holmgren said. “I could probably sleep better at night. But then I started thinking, if I do that — and there’s a play out there that I don’t like — I’m going to be horrible, I’m going to be really bad on these guys. And so instead of doing it that way, I just chose to do it myself.

“And it’s fun. As a head coach, you’ve got to deal with a lot of stuff. I love coaching. I was one of the lucky ones, and I’ve said that many, many times, but sometimes you have to do things that aren’t much fun. Calling the game and the chess match of that on Sundays, that was fun. And so I used to say, ‘I’ve got to have some fun doing this.'”

HEAD COACHES IN WAITING
These offensive playcallers could be next in line for head coaching jobs.

NAME TEAM THE SKINNY
Jim Bob Cooter Lions He’s had success with Mathew Stafford
John DeFilippo Vikings Interviewed for Bears head coach job
Todd Haley Browns Former head coach in K.C., should help turn Browns around
Josh McDaniels Patriots Will have to overcome backing out of Indy HC job
Ken Whisenhunt Chargers Led Cardinals to Super Bowl as HC, struggled with Titans
The Rams’ McVay leaned on his experience working with head coaches who were also playcallers in Jon and Jay Gruden. And McVay benefits from having a veteran staff, including longtime defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and special-teams coordinator John Fassel, so he could delegate game-day duties and focus on managing the offense during the game.

McVay was responsible for engineering one of the best offensive turnarounds in recent NFL memory. The Rams went from scoring a league-low 14 points per game in 2016 to an NFL-high 30 points per contest in McVay’s first year as head coach last season.

“It’s all about surrounding yourself with great people,” McVay told reporters at the combine. “Certainly, the year provides a great opportunity to look inward and feel like, you know, there’s a lot of things that even though you might think you did a lot of things well, if you’re really being honest with yourself, you can improve.

“Just being more organized, a better playcaller, a better way of continuing to be consistent with the messaging for our players. So that’s what you’re excited about going into Year 2, is looking at how you can improve specifically as a head coach. There were definitely some challenges, but the great people kind of allow you to handle it in a manner that’s conducive for us to be able to have a little bit of success.”

Former NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst Matt Hasselbeck started nine seasons for the Seahawks, where he was directed by one of the best offensive playcallers in league history in Holmgren. Hasselbeck said that in his first year in Seattle, Holmgren would give the play to quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn, who then would relay them to Hasselbeck on the field. Hasselbeck said that the next year, Holmgren switched to calling the plays directly to Hasselbeck, which the quarterback preferred.

“Having that direct line to the playcaller as the head coach, I actually liked it a lot,” Hasselbeck said. “It’s third-and-8 and he tells you that you have two chances here because we’re going to go for it on fourth down. That’s helpful.”

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Neuheisel will return to the sideline next year as head coach of the Phoenix franchise in the Alliance of American Football. Like Holmgren, Neuheisel said handling the playcalling duties helps a head coach avoid second-guessing the offensive play calls on game days.

“This business is full of regret,” Neuheisel said. “If you’re going to regret something, make it be your decision rather than somebody else’s. When you are having a sleepless night, it is much easier to deal with that sort of remorse when it was your call rather than you gave that decision to someone else.

“And why would you give it to someone else when it mattered that much to you and you were going to spend sleepless hours pondering it? I’d rather just make it my call. I can live with that.”

Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy knows that too well. After a stinging loss to Seattle during the 2014 playoffs, McCarthy handed over playcalling duties to offensive coordinator Tom Clements during the offseason so he could be more involved on defense and special teams, only to take them back 12 games later during the 2015 season after the offense sputtered.

“Mike blamed himself, saying he’s giving the playcalling to his offensive coordinator,” Holmgren said. “And I go, ‘Oh, boy.’ So I bumped into him at the banquet and I said, ‘Hey, Mike, one man’s opinion and you don’t need my advice; however, I’m going to give you some: Do not give up the playcalling.

“‘Don’t do that, because you are good at [it] and you’re reacting to one game.’ That was my thought. And there will come a time during the season where you might have to take it back. And if you have to take it back, that’s hard on the guy you gave it to. It’s just hard.

“I would say to any of these young guys calling plays, stick with it.”

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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who has downplayed the absence of five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Julio Jones from both mandatory minicamp and voluntary workouts, said he plans to conduct July workouts involving Jones.

Ryan, who in recent years organized and paid for teammates to meet in South Florida for unscheduled practices, said he plans to hold similar sessions before training camp in late July. Ryan did not divulge the full details of the workouts.

“There’s probably about 12 of us that are going to get together in the month of July, and he’ll certainly be a part of that,” Ryan said of Jones. “We’ll have an extended period where we get some work together. You know, that’s something that we’ve done in the past. The past couple of years, we were down in Miami.

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“This year is a little bit later due to kind of my offseason, but we’ll still have that chance to work together. And I think that will be really productive for us.”

Ryan became a father of twins this offseason, and his revised home schedule led to pushing the “passing camp” back to a later date.

Meanwhile, Jones has been away from the team while dealing with a contract issue. He is looking for a revised contract with three years and $35 million remaining. He faces a grand total of $84,425 in fines for missing the three-day minicamp.

Ryan said he is not concerned about getting Jones up to speed with the changes being made in Year 2 of offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian’s offense.

“I don’t think that will be difficult,” Ryan said. “He’s such an incredible player, such a talented player. And he’s been working hard. He’s in great shape. I think he’ll pick those new things up really quickly. And he’s got a lot of time on task with 95 percent of our system. So, he knows this system inside and out. He’s always extremely well-prepared. And I’m confident and positive he’ll be ready to go.”

Jones, who is looking for his fifth consecutive 1,400-plus-yard season, has been working out with NFL Hall of Fame receiver Terrell Owens.

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Ben Roethlisberger has two years left on a contract that goes through the 2019 season, but the Pittsburgh Steelers signal-caller isn’t looking to break the bank when the time comes for a new deal.

“I care about record-breaking Super Bowl wins and things like that — that’s more important to me,” Roethlisberger told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler from the QB’s football camp Sunday in Pittsburgh.

Roethlisberger currently sits as the 12th-highest paid quarterback in annual salary at $21.85 million, per Over The Cap, well behind the likes of Kirk Cousins ($28 million per) and Matt Ryan ($30 million). While most of the offseason talk has revolved around Aaron Rodgers resetting the QB market, Big Ben isn’t worried about topping all others when it comes time for a new deal.
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“I have two years on my contract. I’m not going to be one to sit here and worry about my contract,” said Roethlisberger. “That’s not my job. My job is to play football. I’ll let my representation, the Steelers worry about all that stuff. To me, it’s all about going out and playing now. I think there are a lot more, maybe a lot more important people who need to get their deals done now. For me to do it two years out, if it doesn’t make sense for the team, I’m not going to sit here and worry about it.”

A year after contemplating retirement, Roethlisberger now sounds like a player who’s willing to take fewer dollars on his next deal in hopes of increasing his chances for another Super Bowl victory.

“It’s important, too, to understand as quarterback of this team, sometimes you almost have to leave a little bit of money behind for other guys,” Roethlisberger said. “That’s not my job, that’s not my thing to worry about. That’s why I have agents.”

Le’Veon Bell sits as the most obvious candidate in need of a payday in Pittsburgh, but Big Ben pointed to his offensive linemen as where he’d invest some of his money.

“I know in two years, [Maurkice] Pouncey, [Marcus] Gilbert, there are other very important guys up that I hope get taken care of,” Roethlisberger said. “Because if they aren’t here, I’m not here. That’s the way it is; they are that good.”

With the quarterback market thrust over $30 million per year, Roethlisberger’s ensuing deal will be interesting to track over the course of the next year or so to see if Big Ben leaves any money on the table when he has the leverage to max out.

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At some point, Aaron Rodgers will become the newest highest-paid quarterback in the NFL. By most accounts, that formality should happen before the 2018 season kicks off.

Beyond leapfrogging Matt Ryan in average per year and guaranteed money, there are more nuanced aspects of Rodgers’ anticipated contract that are worth tracking.

NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo reported Thursday on Up To The Minute Live that player control is one aspect of the new contract that is extremely important to Rodgers, according to sources briefed on the negotiations. How much built-in control will Rodgers have on his future?

In 2013, Rodgers signed a five-year extension that put him under team control through the 2019 season. Since then, the All-World quarterback has seen some far lesser signal-callers leapfrog him in pay. Rodgers’ $22 million per season average ranks 10th among QBs, behind Ryan, Kirk Cousins, Jimmy Garoppolo, Matthew Stafford, Derek Carr, Drew Brees, Andrew Luck, Alex Smith and Joe Flacco.

If Rodgers signs another five-year extension, that would put him under team control through 2024 when he’s 41 years old. Such a long deal would surely lead to another game of leapfrog in which Rodgers sees worse quarterbacks get paid more.

Garafolo reported Rodgers would like some sort of out clause in an extension that would allow the QB to control his ability to renegotiate a new deal.

One problem in Rodgers earning such an opt-out: Why would the Packers give up leverage?

Currently, Rodgers has two years remaining on his deal. The Packers then hold the ability to franchise tag the quarterback the next two seasons. Green Bay could do nothing and have Rodgers under center for the next four seasons. When you’re holding a full house, there are very few hands to which you’d fold.

Kirk Cousins signed a three-year deal with all $84 million guaranteed. The short deal will allow the Vikings QB another shot at a big contract during his prime. He leveraged such a player-friendly deal because he was a free agent. Rodgers doesn’t hold such trump cards.

If Rodgers had his way, his new deal would be unlike any contract we’ve see, Garafolo later added.

How much leverage the Packers concede to the game’s most important player will be fascinating when a deal is eventually done.

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Three sports memorabilia collectors who accused New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning of providing bogus “game-worn” equipment that was sold to unsuspecting fans settled their lawsuit against the Super Bowl-winning quarterback on Monday, days before the case was scheduled to go to trial.

A spokesman for the defendants, a group that included Manning, the Giants, two equipment managers and Steiner Sports, the company with whom Manning is under contract to provide game-worn jerseys and helmets for sale, said Monday night that a settlement had been reached to resolve the claims. Details were not given.

The attorneys for both sides issued a joint statement that read: “[Plaintiffs] Eric Inselberg, Michael Jakab and Sean Godown have resolved all claims in their pending litigation against the New York Giants, Eli Manning, John Mara, William Heller, Joseph Skiba, Edward Skiba and Steiner Sports, in accordance with a confidential settlement agreement reached today. The compromise agreement, entered into by all parties, should not be viewed as supporting any allegations, claims or defenses.”

“All parties are grateful to have the matter, which began in 2014, concluded and are now focused on football, the fans and the future,” the statement added.

Inselberg, Jakab and Godown had sought triple the amount of their alleged losses — which totaled less than $20,000 combined — for buying two helmets billed as worn by Manning. They also had sought punitive damages and claimed in court filings they would produce evidence that would “show that Manning engaged in a pattern of knowingly providing items to Steiner Sports that he misrepresented as having been game-used when he knew they were not.”

Manning and the Giants had denied the allegations and characterized the suit as “inflammatory and baseless” in court filings.

Jury selection was to have begun this week, but a death in the family of one of the attorneys had pushed that back to next Monday.

Fourteen lawyers representing all parties involved in the case gathered Monday at the Bergen County Justice Center for the first day of the civil suit. The plaintiffs’ lead attorney, Brian Brook, said after the judge went over the logistics and housekeeping that he had been receiving the “silent treatment” from the other side. Brook said he had never experienced anything like it.

When they left the courthouse before noon, there was little optimism from all parties involved that a settlement would soon be reached. Nine hours later, however, it was finished.
A joint statement from all the plaintiffs and defendants, a group that included Eli Manning, the Giants and the team’s equipment managers, says a confidential memorabilia fraud settlement was reached Monday. Al Bello/Getty Images
Inselberg filed the lawsuit in 2014. The suit claimed two helmets purchased by Inselberg and the two other plaintiffs — including one purportedly used by Manning during the Giants’ 2007 Super Bowl season — were bogus. Inselberg alleged photographic experts, using a technique called “photomatching,” could not find evidence that the helmets were ever used in games.

The Giants and Manning contend photomatching is unreliable because it does not take into account that helmets are routinely reconditioned during or after a season, the evidence of which might be found on the inside of the helmet and not the outside.

The stakes were raised in the lawsuit in April 2017 when Inselberg’s attorneys filed court documents that contained emails between Manning and equipment manager Joseph Skiba, who also was a defendant in the lawsuit. In one email, Manning asks Skiba to get “2 helmets that can pass as game used.”

The email does not refer to the two helmets at issue in the lawsuit, but Inselberg alleged it indicated a pattern of fraud.

 

When the emails went public last year, Manning angrily denied any wrongdoing. In a court filing this month, Manning’s attorney wrote that the email was intended to ask Skiba for two game-used helmets that would “satisfy the requirement of being game-used.”

“Manning never instructed Joe Skiba to create any fraudulent memorabilia,” attorney Robert Lawrence wrote. “Rather, Manning believed that if he asked Joe Skiba for his helmets, he received his game-used helmets and that the helmets he received from Skiba were his game-used helmets.”

In the same court filing, Manning’s lawyer accused Inselberg of being “engaged in a decades-long memorabilia scheme” in which he obtained, without permission, game-used Giants equipment, including Manning’s, from Skiba and Skiba’s brother, Ed, as well as a local dry cleaner.