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Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers hopes to avoid knee brace


GREEN BAY, Wis. — There’s good news and potentially bad news for Aaron Rodgers.

The Green Bay Packers quarterback could have his top three receivers back together for Monday night’s game against the San Francisco 49ers, but he might be a little less mobile than he’d like.

Rodgers experienced what he called a setback with his ailing left knee during last Sunday’s loss to the Detroit Lions, when he took a hit from linebacker Christian Jones on the game’s opening drive.

For the first time since he was injured in the season opener, Rodgers wore a smaller, lighter brace against the Lions. Now there’s a chance he may have to go back to the larger brace that he wore in the three games immediate following the injury.

“I hope not,” Rodgers said. “The goal would be to wear the same brace I wore last week, but I have a lot of faith in our training staff and we’re going to [use] the brace we feel is most safe and allowing me to do exactly what I’m able to do on Monday.”

Rodgers did not practice on Thursday, the Packers’ first of the week in advance of the 49ers game. That followed the same pattern as the last month. He said he hoped to practice on Friday; the past two weeks, he has taken part in that full-pads workout (which is normally on Thursday in advance of a Sunday game).

He did, however, call what happened against the Lions a setback. He threw for 442 yards and three touchdowns against the Lions but was done in by two first-half fumbles on strip sacks, marking only the third time in his career that he lost two fumbles in a game.

“Yeah, kind of a setback last week, the beginning of the week,” Rodgers said. “Got to be in the rehab group again today, got a lot of good work in with [assistant trainer] Nate [Weir] and just hoping I get back out there tomorrow and have a feel-good Friday and a practice [Sunday] and be good to go — hopefully back to where I was in Detroit.”

While Rodgers worked with the trainers, receivers Randall Cobb and Geronimo Allison were surprise participants at practice on Thursday after missing the Detroit game. Both had hamstring injuries; Allison also was diagnosed with a concussion. Coach Mike McCarthy said before Thursday’s practice that Allison had cleared the concussion protocol, but indications were both receivers would be in the rehab group.

Instead, they went through at least part of practice, meaning the trio of Cobb, Allison and No. 1 receiver Davante Adams are on the verge of a reunion. The trio hasn’t played together since Week 3 because Cobb missed the previous two games.

Against the Lions, it was Adams and three rookie receivers. Two of them, Marquez Valdes-Scantling (seven catches for 68 yards) and Equanimeous St. Brown (three for 89) made contributions, but Adams (nine for 140 and a touchdown) did the majority of the work.

“I think we can be one of the best in the league,” Adams said of the trio of himself, Cobb and Allison. “I honestly think that because obviously you know how I feel about myself and my game. Randall’s been doing this thing for a long time, longer than I have. I have the utmost respect for him, and G-Mo goes about his business as good as anybody else in the league. So the sky’s the limit for him. I feel like he has not even come close to reaching his potential. He’s shown flashes, but he can do a lot for us.”

Perhaps that will help the Packers get off to a faster start, something Rodgers has identified as a goal. Although they’re 10th in the NFL in total offense, they are tied for 18th in scoring and tied for 19th in red-zone touchdown percentage. They have been outscored 42-13 in first quarters this season and 76-43 in first halves, while averaging just 23 points per game.

“It’s definitely below, and we’ve kind of been stuck at that number,” Rodgers said. “Scored that a couple of times — 22, 24, way up to 29 in Week 2. Not quite the standard that we’ve set here over the years with the type of offense we think we can have and the type of offense we think we could have coming out of training camp.

“I told you guys Week 1 it’s going to be a work in progress; I don’t think we’re far off. I feel kind of like after Washington a couple of years ago [2016, Week 11]. We are very close to getting things going and like I said then and I’ll say again now, I feel like if we can get off to a better start on offense, it makes the entire squad play with a different type of confidence.

“We need to lead from the front as an offense and as a team and give our defense an opportunity to pin their ears back and get after the quarterback and make them a little more one-dimensional.”

A full complement of receivers and the smaller knee brace could help.



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William Hayes of Miami Dolphins tears ACL trying to avoid sack flag


DAVIE, Fla. — Miami Dolphins defensive end William Hayes tore the ACL in his right knee on Sunday in an unusual way.

It happened while Hayes completed a huge third-down sack on Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, coach Adam Gase said.

“He was trying to not put body weight on the quarterback,” Gase said. “His foot got caught in the ground.”

According to the new NFL rule change, a defender laying their body weight on a quarterback after a tackle or sack incurs a 15-yard roughing-the-passer penalty.

Gase was asked if he believes the rule change led to Hayes’ torn ACL: “I’m just telling you what happened. … I’m just telling you what he did.”

Hayes appeared to shorten his last step — with his right leg — and attempted to roll over Carr instead of landing on him. He immediately grabbed his right knee, rolling and crawling on the ground while his teammates tried to help him.

Hayes walked off the field in considerable pain with a heavy limp.

This is a big loss for the Dolphins, who counted on Hayes to be one of their top run stoppers and rotational edge rushers.

“It hurts. He’s one of our leaders,” Gase said. “That’s going to be a tough one to swallow.”

Charles Harris, the Dolphins’ 2017 first-round pick, will be asked to step into a bigger role with Hayes out.

Gase did confirm Monday that injuries to defensive end Andre Branch (knee), linebacker Chase Allen (foot) and tight end A.J. Derby (foot) are not expected to be season-ending.



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Carolina Panthers agree to deal with Graham Gano, avoid tag


CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Carolina Panthers agreed to a four-year contract with place-kicker Graham Gano, the team announced Tuesday.

The team was prepared to use their franchise tag on Gano if a deal couldn’t be reached by 4 p.m. Tuesday, the last day teams can use the designation.

The Carolina Panthers opted in 2017 to keep Gano, 30, after drafting Georgia Tech kicker Harrison Butker in the seventh round. The decision was made primarily because of Gano’s experience on a team that general manager Marty Hurney thought had a chance to make a Super Bowl run.

Butker was placed on the Panthers’ practice squad and later was signed by the Kansas City Chiefs.

Gano’s 2016 season was marred by a missed 50-yard field goal in the final seconds of a season-opening 21-20 loss to the Denver Broncos and a broken plant foot that required offseason surgery.

The former Florida State kicker rebounded in 2017 with one of his best seasons, making the Pro Bowl. He converted a career-best 96.7 percent of his attempts, going 29-for-29 inside the 50-yard line.



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How Los Angeles Rams can avoid a letdown after seven-win improvement – Los Angeles Rams Blog


LOS ANGELES — From the start of 1990 to the end of 2016, 23 teams did what the 2017 Los Angeles Rams just pulled off, improving by seven or more wins from one season to the next. Only one of those teams, the 1998 New York Jets, increased their victory total even further the following year. Two teams, the 2013 Indianapolis Colts and the 2015 Houston Texans, remained even. The rest dropped off immediately after their resurgence, many considerably.

The past 23 teams that made seven-plus-win improvements averaged four fewer victories the following season. Earlier this week, we identified seven common traits from the 10 who dropped off the most. Now we’ll take a look at seven things that need to happen so the Rams — who went from 4-12 in 2016 to 11-5 in 2017 — don’t join the crowd.

Develop the tight ends: Rams coach Sean McVay volunteered this during his end-of-season news conference. He talked about how the Rams were almost exclusively in “11” personnel (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers) down the stretch. “You don’t want to just operate out of one personnel group in an ideal world,” McVay said, “so we’ve got to continue to develop some depth at the tight end position.” Gerald Everett, last year’s 44th overall pick, is only 23. Tyler Higbee, who just finished his second year, is 25. Temarrick Hemingway, who spent all of last season recovering from a broken fibula, is 24. They’re all loaded with athleticism and playmaking ability. But the Rams ran only 147 snaps in multiple-tight-end sets last year, last in the NFL. Everett, Higbee and Hemingway must take the next step to give this offense a new dynamic.

Give Sammy Watkins another chance: Watkins didn’t join the Rams until August and the receiver never felt like he built real chemistry with quarterback Jared Goff. “He got on a roll with the guys that he had during OTAs,” Watkins said, “and once a guy is used to throwing it to someone else, he throws to his guys.” A full offseason within McVay’s offense would be huge for Watkins, who caught only 20 percent of Goff passes that traveled at least 20 yards downfield. Putting the franchise tag on Watkins makes sense. No, his numbers (39 catches, 593 yards, eight touchdowns) weren’t great. But he stayed healthy, and his presence as a legitimate downfield threat was vital in opening the middle of the field for Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp. It would be risky to pursue a long-term deal, especially with Josh Reynolds waiting in the wings. But it’s worth giving Watkins another try.

Identify scheme fits at linebacker: The Rams need to find the right answers to some tough questions here. They can save $22 million in cap space in the next three years by parting with inside linebacker Mark Barron, and they can save more than $24 million in the next two years by letting go of outside linebacker Robert Quinn. With Barron, the Rams must ask themselves if they would be better served with a bigger, run-stuffing linebacker inside, which could help a defense that allowed the third-most rushing yards per carry in 2017. With Quinn, it’s a matter of whether he made the transition from defensive end well enough to warrant his high salary. With both, it also comes down to projecting health. Another starting linebacker, Connor Barwin, is a free agent. Barwin is an ideal scheme fit for Wade Phillips. But he’s 31, and Pro Football Focus gave him the second-worst grade among qualified edge defenders.

Bring back Lamarcus Joyner: Who was the Rams’ second-best defensive player? That would be Joyner, who was exceptional in his first season as an NFL safety, earning Pro Football Focus’ third-highest grade at the position. Joyner had three interceptions, 61 tackles and, according to the Rams, seven pass breakups. He affected games as a high safety, near the line of scrimmage and, when called upon, in the slot. He boasts great ball skills, but he’s also a ferocious hitter. He changes the dynamic of the Rams’ defense, and they need to find a way to keep him now that he’s a free agent. Joyner would probably command roughly $10 million a year on an extension. His talent and ability make him worth it, even at 5-foot-8.

Find the next wave at offensive line: Left tackle Andrew Whitworth, 36, left guard Rodger Saffold, 29, and center John Sullivan, 32, combined to play in 93 percent of the Rams’ offensive snaps through last year’s first 15 games, before the Rams sat their starters for the regular-season finale. That’s a near miracle. The Rams can’t bank on that kind of health from their three sage offensive linemen again, which is why it’s crucial for them to find young players who can step in when needed and lock down those positions long term. Whitworth and Saffold will be back. Sullivan is set to become a free agent, but he had a good enough year, and is familiar enough with McVay’s system, that he could perceivably return, too. But the Rams might need more talent behind them. It might be worth allocating significant draft capital or salary-cap dollars to it.

Inject more talent at cornerback: This is currently the Rams’ biggest position of need. Trumaine Johnson, their primary corner, and Nickell Robey-Coleman, their standout slot corner, are set to become free agents. Their No. 2 corner, Kayvon Webster, is coming off a ruptured Achilles tendon. Behind them is Troy Hill, who played well down the stretch but seems a little too small to lock down the outside. Behind Hill? Not a whole lot. The Rams are expected to target cornerbacks in the draft, and bringing back Robey-Coleman should be a no-brainer if the price is reasonable. The big question is Johnson, who has been franchised in back-to-back years and could command about $14 million a year on an extension. Rams general manager Les Snead said he could “definitely” envision a scenario with Johnson returning, but that will hinge on a multitude of factors.

Limit turnovers: Eleven of the 23 teams that made seven-win improvements from 1990 to 2016 regressed by four or more games the following season. One trait they all shared: a significant drop-off in turnover margin. Limiting turnovers will be key for the 2018 Rams, as it is for every team in every season. And it starts at quarterback. Goff did a nice job of staying within himself in his second year, throwing an interception on only 1.5 percent of his attempts, which was tied for the fourth-lowest rate in the NFL. But Goff also was susceptible to opponents coming around the edge and knocking the ball loose while he looked downfield. The 23-year-old fumbled eight times, losing three of them. The Rams expect Goff to take another step forward in Year 3, even after making the Pro Bowl. But they mainly need him to take care of the ball and get it to his playmakers.



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