Ray Lewis nominated for College Football Hall of Fame

Retired Ravens star middle linebacker Ray Lewis has been nominated for the College Football Hall of Fame Class of 2014.

Lewis was a consensus All-American at the University of Miami and was a runner-up for the Butkus award.

The class will be announced in May and then honored by the National Football Foundation will be honored on Dec. 9 at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York.

He was a two-time All-Big East Conference selection who ranks sixth all-time in school history with 388 career tackles.

Lewis retired after the Ravens' Super Bowl XLVII victory over the San Francisco 49ers.

Lewis was a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, a 13-time Pro Bowl selection and was named the Super Bowl XXXV Most Valuable Player.

Bookmark and Share

Warren Sapp on college Hall of Fame ballot

Numerous former NFL stars are on the latest list of candidates for the College Football Hall of Fame.

One of those on the ballot is Miami (Fla.) defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last year. Sapp currently works for NFL Network. Other NFL Network employees on the Hall list are South Carolina wide receiver Sterling Sharpe and TCU running back LaDainian Tomlinson.

Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who was a star linebacker at California, is another on the list.

The 2014 class will be announced in May, with the official induction coming Dec. 9. Ballots were mailed this week to more than 12,000 members of the National Football Foundation -- which oversees the Hall of Fame -- and current Hall of Famers. There is no set number of inductees, though the number usually is around 11 or 12 players and two coaches.

The FBS list includes 75 former players and six coaches. The ballot also includes players from the FCS, Division II, Division III and NAIA ranks; among the candidates in that group are former NFL players Marlin Briscoe, Mark Cotney and Don Griffin.

Among the other FBS players: North Carolina cornerback Dre Bly, USC offensive tackle Tony Boselli, USC safety Mark Carrier, Florida wide receiver Wes Chandler, UNLV quarterback Randall Cunningham, SMU running back Eric Dickerson, Miami (Fla.) linebacker Ray Lewis, Illinois linebacker Simeon Rice and Alabama linebacker Derrick Thomas.

Heisman winners Eric Crouch, a quarterback at Nebraska; Rashaan Salaam, a running back at Colorado; and Ricky Williams, a running back at Texas, also are on the ballot.

Darryl Rogers, who spent four seasons (1985-88) as the coach of the Detroit Lions, is one of the coaches on the list.

Bookmark and Share

VIDEO: Trip into Sean Taylor memories

So today I traveled down a Sean Taylor YouTube binge-watching rabbit hole, and it was glorious. But it got me thinking about all that this Redskins team really lacks.

Here's a LONG (30-minute) video that will make you miss the guy. Just watch a play or two and you'll miss him. Instantly.

Bookmark and Share

Packers official laughs off run at Jimmy Graham

When the New Orleans Saints used their franchise tag on Jimmy Graham, it seemed to ensure the star tight end would be catching passes from Drew Brees for at least another season.

Yes, the tag's nonexclusive nature allows other teams to bid for Graham's talent in free agency. But the cost would be absurd -- two first-round draft picks in addition to a contract rich enough to scare off the Saints.

It's hard to imagine a team willing to gamble on its future for the reward of a tight end, but perhaps Graham is special enough to warrant an exception.

"I think the only players more valuable than Jimmy Graham are three or four quarterbacks," one AFC general manager told Mike Freeman of Bleacher Report. "That's it."

According to Freeman, "word is beginning to leak" throughout the NFL that at least one team will make a play at obtaining Graham, pricetag be damned.

The Green Bay Packers -- who are very realistically in the market for a tight end -- are unlikely to emerge as a potential suitor. A Packers official told Freeman the idea of giving up that much for a tight end was "dumb, beyond dumb ... won't happen."

You have to think the Packers are far from alone in that sentiment, regardless of how productive Graham has been in his brief career. Still, the Saints have left the door open a crack.

Now we get to find out if there's a team with the guts to barge in.

Bookmark and Share

Jon Beason to represent himself in free agency

Veteran linebacker Jon Beason is going to save himself 3 percent on his next deal.

But he’s costing himself three days in the process.

According to Adam Schefter of ESPN, the Giants unrestricted free agent has emailed all 32 teams telling them he’d be representing himself in free agency.

But as a result, teams other than the Giants can’t talk to him until Tuesday, taking him out of the three-day legal tampering window.

For a player who has been through a few negotiations (and a few agents), Beason should be able to well cover his own needs. Other players, including Titans safety Bernard Pollard recently, have gone without an agent to do a deal.

If Beason lands where he wants at a reasonable rate, the savings might be worth it. But a lot of relationships are going to be struck this weekend, even if they’re not consummated, while Beason waits at the altar.

Bookmark and Share

Pats trying to convince Vince Wilfork to restructure

Vince Wilfork was first-team All Pro in 2012.

That wasn’t one of those reputation-based honors, either. He was – along with Geno Atkins – one of the very best defensive tackles in football.

Since 2007, Wilfork was either first or second-team All Pro in every season except 2008 and last season, when he blew out his Achilles against the Falcons.

Prior to the injury, Wilfork’s work in the Patriots first three games was modest. Far short of the destructive force he’d been in 2012.

That fact, Wilfork’s age (he’ll be 33 in November) and his financial heft (he’s due a $7.5M salary and will carry an $11.6M cap hit this year) have his immediate future in some question.

Over the next four days, the Patriots will be trying to convince Vince to trim that cap hit down by taking a restructured deal.

And – given his age and recent injury history – they may be asking him to take a pay cut as well (I don’t know that to be the case, by the way, it is a presumption).

This is where it might get sticky. Wilfork – aside from a three-game span in 2013 – has been one of the NFL’s best defensive linemen over the past seven years.

He’s not going to think he’s anything less than that now.

The contract Wilfork signed in March of 2010 was for five years and $40 million. It included an $18M signing bonus and $24M guaranteed. He’s realized $31,954,860.00 of that deal.

Given the prolonged battle he went through to get the deal he got, I will bet Wilfork and his wife/business partner Bianca are going to want every cent the Patriots agreed to give them.

Having been with the team since 2004, Wilfork is well-acquainted with the Patriots’ relentless pragmatism.

He likely foresaw these March 2014 discussions taking place the day he signed the contract.

The rub to any Patriots appeal for a restructure is this: it’s not that they CAN’T carry Wilfork’s $11.6M cap hit this year. It’s that they will not WANT to.

The cap is at $133M. With cap rollovers, credits, etc., they are about $15M under the cap right now according to Miguel Benzan, a layman cap expert who’s been doing this stuff for more than a decade and is very accurate.

Meanwhile, Isaac Sopoaga and his $3.5M cap hit have already been heaved overboard, we’re just waiting for the splash. They have a crapton of cap space.

The Patriots can handle Wilfork’s $11.6M cap hit. And Logan Mankins’ $10.5M cap hit. Both players have been everything they said they’d be when they signed the deals in 2010. They’ve played at a high level. They’ve played hurt. They’ve been the standard-bearers for leadership on offense and defense and they’ve been the conscience or their groups.

If the Patriots want to shuffle Wilfork’s money just to open 2014 cap space and then contract Wilfork at below-market prices in coming years WITHOUT using the cap space saved on new guys in 2014, then I wouldn’t go along with that if I were Vincent Lamar Wilfork.

The Patriots would be, in essence, pocketing the savings and penalizing Wilfork in 2014 for being hurt in 2013.

However, if the Patriots intend to use that money a Wilfork restructure will save them THIS YEAR, that’s a different story. In that case, they are giving Wilfork all of his five-year, $40M contract but contracting him at a below-market deal in coming seasons. The negotiation would then be in good faith.

The Patriots would be signing up for two more seasons at below-market price for a player of Wilfork’s ability. They would be entitled to do that, in my opinion, as he would be a guy coming off an Achilles in his 33rd year on Earth. And what the hell, the Patriots guarantee about 70 percent of it, and that’s a fair move.

I’m sure these are the things being weighed right now in Camp Wilfork.

Both sides are going to be hoping for peaceful resolution. The chance of that happening? 50-50

Bookmark and Share

Devin Hester thanks Chicago Bears fans in emotional goodbye message

In a message posted to his official Facebook page, the dynamic runner reserved special praise for the Bears fanbase:

"To all my Chicago people...I can't thank you all enough for my time in Chicago. I've always said I wanted to retire a Chicago Bear but sometimes things don't work out the way we would like.

"Chicago will always hold a special place in my heart and if I am fortunate enough to break the return record, we will have all broken it together...no matter where I am.

"Thank you again and God Bless," he wrote.

The message has already received over 55,000 'likes', and it is clear that the player built up a special bond with fans during his eight years at Soldier Field.
Hester had to date spent all of his professional career with the Chicago Bear since being drafted in 2006 and has built a reputation as an expert punt and kickoff returner. 

The return record he speaks of in the message is currently set at 13 - a total Hester shares with Deion Sanders.

So when Hester finally breaks that record, which he looks likely to do at a new franchise, we can be sure he will pay a little tribute to the people in Chicago who helped him reach the landmark. 

Hester will head to free agency now, and even at 31-years old should find a new team without too much trouble.

Bookmark and Share

Michael Russell rallies to advance to second round at Indian Wells

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. (AP) - Michael Russell rallied to advance to the second round of the BNP Paribas Open, beating Donald Young 4-6, 6-1, 6-2 on Thursday.

Playing on the new 8,000-seat Court 2 at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, the 35-year-old Russell beat Young for the fourth time in a row and fifth in six tries to set up a match against Russia's Mikhail Youzhny.

Tim Smyczek beat Jack Sock 6-4, 1-6, 6-4 in a battle of American men.

Four-time champion Roger Federer, the No. 7 seed, had a first-round bye.

In women's play, Canada's Aleksandra Wozniak routed Poland's Urszula Radwanska 6-2, 6-0, and Croatia's Ajla Tomljanovic topped Spain's Lourdes Dominguez Lino 6-4, 7-6 (2).

Bookmark and Share

Jemile Weeks brings new dimension to Baltimore lineup

SARASOTA, Fla. — Jemile Weeks could be the piece that the Baltimore Orioles are looking for to make a run at a division title in 2014.

After finishing third in the notoriously tough American League East a season ago, the Orioles were one of the busiest teams in baseball this offseason.

In a lineup full of power hitters such as Chris Davis, Adam Jones and Matt Wieters, Weeks brings valuable speed necessary to capitalize on the production from the big bats in the heart of the order.

“I feel like I can strongly contribute on the offensive side,” Weeks said, sitting at a table in the team’s spring training dining room in Sarasota. “The speed is definitely going to be one of my bigger things. Stealing bases, getting in scoring position, and scoring a lot of runs.”

A season ago, as a member of the Sacramento River Cats, Oakland’s triple-A affiliate, Weeks finished with a .376 on-base percentage, and 17 steals in 19 attempts.

The former first-round pick out of the University of Miami will also bolster an already exceptional Orioles defensive unit.

Weeks has tremendous range at second base and is working on his efficiency this spring training to ensure that he is able to make every play possible in the field. Additionally, having spent time at shortstop and in the outfield, the former Oakland Athletic possesses a valuable tool for any major leaguer – versatility.

“I ended up playing two games in centre field last year in Oakland,” Weeks said. “Shortstop is the one thing I haven’t accomplished, but I feel really comfortable over there. I tried it last year and the experiment went pretty well. It would be something I’m open to down the road.”

Moving from a title-contending team in Oakland to another potential playoff team in Baltimore has been a smooth transition for the switch-hitting Weeks.
Entering spring training, the 27-year old had pre-existing friendships with a handful of teammates, including Julio Borbon and Tommy Hunter. Additionally, Alex Gonzalez and J.J. Hardy have played with Jemile’s older brother Rickie of the Milwaukee Brewers.

“The baseball world becomes small. The longer you play, the smaller it becomes,” Weeks said. “There were a few guys I was comfortable with coming in, and then the team formed and meshed well together.”

Also easing in the transition is the location of the Orioles’ spring training facilities.

Playing with the Athletics, Weeks spent his first three spring training camps in Phoenix, AZ. Being in Sarasota with the Orioles has allowed Weeks to feel more at ease.

“It’s different for me, but in a positive way,” said Weeks. “Family is close by, and things are more familiar for me. Being with a new team in a place that I’m somewhat comfortable in, I think it takes away that jittery edge.”

Bookmark and Share

Yasmani Grandal: (Knee) Needs to Build Stamina

Grandal (knee) must build up his stamina, before the green light will be given for an appearance in spring training, the San Diego Union-Tribune reports.

Grandal remains an option to start at catcher on Opening Day, but every day that goes by without an appearance places greater doubt in his availability for that tilt. If he's unable to make the necessary progress in his recovery from a torn right ACL, Nick Hundley will hold down the fort at catcher, with Rene Rivera and, potentially, prospect Austin Hedges factoring into the mix behind the plate.

Bookmark and Share

Packers might be wise to make an offer to Jimmy Graham

The NFL franchise tag may as well be a ball and chain for prospective free agents who receive it. After all, most teams are unwilling to pitch them proposals knowing it will cost two first-round draft picks if the club that owns the tagged player’s rights refuses to match an offer sheet.

Might Jimmy Graham be a rare exception to the rule?

The New Orleans Saints have franchised the all-pro tight end, who is the primary target of Drew Brees’ and Sean Payton’s aerial circus. In all likelihood, a deal will eventually get done to keep Graham in The Big Easy, though probably not before he and the front office go through a seemingly unnecessary spat as to whether his tag should carry the tight end value ($7.1 million) or more lucrative wide receiver figure ($12.1 million) since Graham spends much of his time split wide.

But while the impasse lingers in New Orleans, other teams are surely considering whether it makes sense to pursue a player who led the NFL with 16 TD grabs in 2013 and might be the league’s premier mismatch player.

There may be one club perfectly positioned to make a run at Graham — the Green Bay Packers.

Here’s why:

1) With Jermichael Finley headed to free agency and his medical prognosis uncertain anyway, Green Bay has a need at the position. No. 3 wideout James Jones is also probably on the way out a year after Greg Jennings defected. QB Aaron Rodgers’ once vast array of aerial weapons seems to be dwindling.

2) GM Ted Thompson has the ability to pay Graham. Though he generally loathes bringing in outside players, Thompson seems open to it this year as he sits on more than $30 million in cap space. That’s probably enough to extend WRs Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, buy a few parts for the defensive line and still make Graham an offer in the six-year, $70 million range to make him the league’s best-paid tight end. (The six-year extension Rob Gronkowski signed in 2012 averages $9 million per season, the current benchmark at the position.)

3) Thompson has earned enough goodwill — including a title in 2010 — and proven a savvy enough talent evaluator that he can probably sell the move to his fan base. Rodgers is in the prime of his career and having a weapon like Graham would theoretically make the offense even more explosive. Thompson can easily brand Graham as Green Bay’s first-round pick in 2014, a trade most teams would gladly take, he just has to be comfortable giving away that second Round 1 pick in 2015 — which will probably be a low first rounder anyway given the Packers’ track record – for a roster that boasts a nucleus as good as any organization’s. Locking up the tight end for a half-dozen years or so would also provide more security than a four- or five-year rookie contract.
Graham would cost a lot of cheese, but he’s the rare non-quarterback who could be worth it.

Bookmark and Share

Phillip Buchanon: NFL players learn a new skill: Avoid going broke

27CDB6E-AE6D-11cf-96B8-444553540000" codebase="http://download.macromedia.com/pub/shockwave/cabs/flash/swflash.cab#version=9,0,0,0" >

Former NFL players are almost infamous for suffering from serious financial troubles after they retire. Now the league is trying to help fix the problem.

In Baltimore recently, two former NFL stars stood huddled next to each other, looking down at a colorful pair of dress socks—the latest from the Plaxico Burress Collection. Former All-Pro Giant linebacker Carl Banks nodded his approval to Burress and marveled at the quality of the socks, something Burress said he has finally perfected after months of testing out samples.

"It's time to expand now," Banks emphasized to Burress, who currently sells his collection in two New York City boutiques.

The two exchanged phone numbers and agreed to be in touch about getting Burress' product in stores catered toward the big and tall, where Banks has significant connections.

The scene? The 2014 NFL Consumer Products Boot Camp where more than 15 past and present players are learning skills they hope will last them long after their playing days.

Banks is a success story for the NFL. The former linebacker who won two Super Bowls with the Giants has transformed himself off the field into a successful businessman and president of GIII Sports By Carl Banks.

Banks is working with the NFL to help others find success off the field and help NFL players avoid going from millionaire to just another statistic.

In 2009, Sports Illustrated reported that 78 percent of NFL players face bankruptcy or serious financial stresses within two years of leaving the league. The NFL disputes this figure, saying that NFL retirees have higher income than men of similar ages in the general population.

"There's only so much room in the broadcasting booth," Banks emphasizes to the group during one of the many sessions, which teach everything from marketing to copyright patent law.

The NFL has long held boot camps (broadcasting always the most popular) but this is the first one focused on consumer products.

"This is one of a number of experiences we do to expose our players to life after playing football," said Kimberly Fields, vice president of player engagement for the NFL. "We want to arm players with the tools and resources to do wonderful things in the community."

The players attending the boot camp come from all backgrounds and levels of business experience.

"I happen to be a player that has no clue what I want to do once I'm done with football, so I thought this program would be beneficial to me," said Torrey Smith, wide receiver for the 2013 Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens.

For other players, the week is about learning the necessary skills to take their products to the next level.

"A few years ago we came up with an idea to come up with a potty training package," said Mike Leach, a 37-year-old long snapper for the Arizona Cardinals. "Now we're trying to get manufacturing and distribution."

Leach, a 14-year veteran, says he has become more serious about his life off the field as his window in the NFL has shortened. He's attending the boot camp with his wife and business partner Julie, who says it has been great networking and is helping to provide them with resources, ideas and knowledge to move forward with their product.

Ten-year NFL veteran Phillip Buchanon has other motivations for being at boot camp. Several years ago, a bad business deal and pressure from friends and family almost put him in financial ruin.

"I had one deal where I lost $1.6 million," he said.

Today, he's hoping to tell his cautionary tale in a book and board game aimed at players coming into wealth quickly.

"I felt like this was a way for me to give back after long nights of dealing with bad business deals," Buchanon said.

He said the boot camp has taught him about marketing and being able to take his products and brand to the next level.

"I think just being here is very encouraging and motivating for me," said Buchanon.

Bookmark and Share

Loomis ‘sure’ Saints can reach deal with Graham

Rain and cold may have ruined the Mardi Gras of Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis, but the fear of not being able to reach a long-term deal with tight end Jimmy Graham had no effect on his day.

Loomis, speaking on the SiriusXM Blitz with Bruce Murray and Rich Gannon, said he thinks New Orleans can reach an agreement with Graham to keep him with the Saints for a long time.

“The negotiations are in the process, and Jimmy has been a great player for us for the last four years,” Loomis said.

“Look, I had hoped, and I’m sure he had hoped, that we would come to some conclusion on a longer-term deal before this, but we haven’t yet, and hopefully we will.”

Graham, who had 86 catches for 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns, received a nonexclusive franchise tag from the Saints last weekend. The nonexclusive tag gives him the freedom to negotiate with other teams, but a team must give the Saints two first-round picks if they sign him.

A point of contention between Graham and the Saints since the end of last season was how to classify his position in terms of a new deal, because there is a huge difference in pay for a player who is classified as a tight end as opposed to player who is classified as a receiver.

The NFL Management Council concluded Monday that Graham was to be classified as a tight end and set his salary at $7.053 million for next season with the franchise tag. If Graham were classified as a receiver, his salary would have been set for $12.132 million for next season.

Loomis isn’t sure that happens next in regards to the position classification of Graham.

“We haven't been through this process of that before,” Loomis said. “Look, all we do is franchise him, and then it’s out of our hands.”

According to NFL rules, Graham and the Saints have a deadline of July 15 to work out a new contract. If Graham and the Saints don’t reach a new deal by then, he can play under the franchise tag for 2014 or sit out.

The last day for Graham to sign a franchise tender is Nov. 11.

“I don’t really like to speculate about ‘Hey, what’s going to happen a month from now or three months from now or longer than that,’ ” Loomis said. “I think this: This is a process. A lot of teams have been through it. A lot of players have been through it. And it’s going to be, obviously, unique to Jimmy and us in terms of this particular one. But we’ll just let it play out, and I’m sure we’ll get something resolved.”

Bookmark and Share

Borges: Don't cut Vince Wilfork

It has become fashionable in recent weeks for the chattering class to loudly advocate for the release of five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Vince Wilfork, their argument being he costs too much and is coming off a serious injury.

Before we get to the former issue let’s talk about the latter.

Did Wilfork get hurt skateboarding? Did he tear his Achilles tendon breakdancing or playing pickup basketball in a Wednesday night men’s league? Did he get carted off the side of the Alps on a ski trip? Was he on crutches because he leapt into a mosh pit?

No, folks, Wilfork got hurt on the job. Now if you believe that everybody who gets hurt on the job should be fired then do what you will with him, but if you don’t, why talk like he’s a used piece of office furniture in need of replacement?

Vince Wilfork is not only a human being he’s been a hard-working employee for 10 years in Foxboro. He’s been to five Pro Bowls and was a major contributor to a Super Bowl championship and two AFC titles. In short, he earned the contract he was given. It wasn’t handed to him.

That brings us to the numbers, which to some misguided segments of fandom seem to be all that matters.

The 32-year-old Wilfork is a nose tackle entering the final year of a five-year contract he signed in 2010 and the chickens are coming home to roost, his critics say, because along with him comes an $11.6 million cap hit this year.

That number, like Wilfork, is an enormous figure that the chattering class (whose total knowledge seems to be their fantasy football lineup) see as reason enough to release him. Usually, of course, that is said only after some form of “I really love Vince Wilfork but . . .”

If that’s love what do you say if you hate the guy?

Their argument is that the Patriots would gain $7.58 million in cap savings by letting Wilfork go. They often follow this with arguments like “It’s a passing league” or “The Patriots need a shutdown corner” or “Sealver Siliga is much younger and cheaper.”

While those things may be true to some extent they have nothing to do with Wilfork’s value or even the Patriots’ alleged cap woes.

First off, with a cap of $133 million the Patriots don’t have any cap woes that demand Wilfork be released. Second, if you didn’t notice the difference between even a fading form of Wilfork and the guys that replaced him then you know nothing about football in the first place.

No one would deny coming off a torn Achilles at his age and size (325 pounds, guffaw) isn’t a significant issue that bears watching. Then again, Wilfork began running well ahead of schedule because, as with everything he’s done since he came here, he put in the work nobody sees to get himself that far along.

Yet the more important fantasy in all this mindless chatter about releasing Wilfork is that somehow that is the best way to create cap space.

Well how about thinking first? How about releasing two guys who have done little or nothing for the Patriots since the day they got here instead? How about whacking Adrian Wilson and Isaac Sopoaga and retaining Wilfork?

The nattering nabobs calling for Wilfork’s head perhaps don’t realize the soon-to-be 35-year-old Wilson’s cap number this year is $1,833,333 and the 33-year-old benched Sopoaga’s is $3,500,000. That’s a combined cap figure of $5,333,333 for a shot safety and a 33-year-old defensive tackle who made two tackles in six games before losing his job to Siliga.

For the record, that’s seven fewer than Wilfork made in four games before being hurt.

So which is the greater saving?

The other discussion is about re-doing Wilfork’s contract to add phantom years, perhaps by guaranteeing his salary and turning it into a bonus or giving him a few more upfront millions, like Tom Brady took a year ago, in exchange for years on the back end that reduce his present-day cap figure.

That’s all well and good if done correctly, but how about doing something about right guard Dan Connolly’s $4,083,334 cap number first?

No disrespect to Connolly, who is a loyal soldier and hard working guy, but if you want to mess with somebody’s money shouldn’t it be Sopoaga, Wilson and Connolly before you get around to slashing Wilfork, who if even moderately healthy will do more for your defense than the first two combined?

If you release Wilfork, you save $7,580,000 in cap money. If you release Wilson, Sopoaga and Connolly you save $5,250,000, a difference of only $2,333,000 that could easily be made up by restructuring Wilfork’s $7.5 million base salary.

So unless you believe he can’t play at all (like Sopoaga and Wilson, for example), it’s obvious who the chattering class should be chattering about releasing, and it’s not Vince Wilfork.

Bookmark and Share

Raptors find some divine intervention in John Salmons

TORONTO — The most serendipitous aspect of this surprise season for the Toronto Raptors is that it could have been anybody who came from Sacramento in the Rudy Gay trade. Gay makes about US$19-million annually, which meant the Raptors had to take back approximately the same amount in return.

Those “anybodies” have identities, though. The Raptors received Greivis Vasquez, who solved the team’s backup point guard problem. They got Patrick Patterson, who became one of the league’s best reserve forwards the minute he cleared customs, or so it seemed. And in addition to the sparingly used Chuck Hayes, they got swingman John Salmons.

That part of the acquisition was particularly rich. Salmons spurned the Raptors when he was a free agent in 2006, citing divine intervention. He signed with the Kings, angering many Raptors fans. Yet here was Salmons, well into the back half of his career, forced to come to Toronto to spend at least three-quarters of a season wasting away on what was supposed to be a bad Raptors team.

“Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect. That’s true. I had no idea what to expect,” Salmons said on Wednesday. “I didn’t know what my situation was going to be with the team. I didn’t know if I was going to play or if I wasn’t going to play or how good the team could be.”

The Raptors play the Kings for the second time this season on Friday, and Salmons is delighted, albeit in his own stoic manner. His playing time has taken a hit — he played 30 minutes per game for the Kings, and is at 24 for the Raptors — but his time likely would have dipped in Sacramento as the season progressed. Most importantly, the Raptors are winning, and his new coaching staff adores him.

Since Salmons played his first game for Toronto, the Raptors have scored 6.5 more points per 100 possessions than they have allowed when he has been on the floor. Most of that is due to his defensive contributions, as the second unit has been particularly excellent on that end of the floor. The Raptors have allowed just 96.8 points per 100 possessions while Salmons has played, a figure that would be good enough for second overall in the league, behind only Indiana. Yet, his influence extends beyond that.

I didn’t know if I was going to play or if I wasn’t going to play or how good the team could be

“I think it was the Atlanta game here at home,” coach Dwane Casey said of the Feb. 12 game against the Hawks. “We were struggling offensively. He made a point, saying, ‘Don’t let our offence dictate our defence.’ He was exactly on the money. He just said that out of the blue in the locker room to the players, at halftime. That was a huge statement coming from a player. Usually coaches have to say [that].”

Or as Casey put it before last week’s triple-overtime loss to Washington, making reference to the famous advertising campaign for the brokerage firm: “He’s like E.F. Hutton: When John Salmons speaks, people listen. He rarely speaks, but when he does, it’s profound.”

Salmons says that because of his experience in the league, he has trouble letting small mistakes go. At 34, he is in his 12th season. The 76ers, the team Salmons broke in with in 2002, made the second round of the playoffs in his rookie season. He has not returned to the post-season, losing in the first round in Philadelphia, Chicago and Milwaukee. In two stints with the Kings, the team never made the playoffs.

“It goes quick. It goes quick,” Salmons said of his career. “My first year, going to the second round, you think that’s going to happen every year. As we all know, it doesn’t … We have a chance to go far in the playoffs.”

Casey is thrilled to have Salmons around, in part because his habits might positively influence second-year starter Terrence Ross. Salmons is glad to pass on the lessons taught to him by 76ers veterans Aaron McKie, Eric Snow and Monty Williams, who is now New Orleans’ coach. He is happier for his own sake, though.

“It has turned out great,” Salmons said. “God is good.”

Anybody could have come here from Sacramento. That it was Salmons makes this season feel even more charmed.

Bookmark and Share

Ryan Braun hits another homer

Phoenix — Maybe Ryan Braun isn’t into spring training numbers. But this hot start does mean something.

“I think it’s important,” manager Ron Roenicke said. “We’re not surprised. He can hit. He’s just one of those gifted guys that can sit out a long time. He doesn’t need a lot of at-bats at spring training. He can hit.”

Braun’s sizzling spring continued Wednesday in Milwaukee’s 7-2 win over the Oakland Athletics.

With a single and a home run, he is now 6 for 7 in Cactus League play with two homers.

Not many players can shake off the rust this fast, Roenicke said. Thinking back, the manager mentioned Garret Anderson as one such player. Whatever it is, he’ll take it. Milwaukee’s embattled slugger is in a groove.

“I don’t know if it’s just hand-eye coordination,” Roenicke said. “I don’t know if it’s confidence. It’s probably a combination. But they’re not like everybody else. They don’t struggle so much.”

Milwaukee broke ahead with five runs in the fourth and fifth innings.

Mitch Haniger (2 for 2) and Martin Maldonado (double) had two RBI apiece.

Bookmark and Share

Center Field: Jon Jay and Bourjos

Jon Jay is looking good so far; he seems to have made positive changes in his swing. He's also maintaining a classy, team-first attitude and has had nothing but nice things to say about Peter Bourjos.

I've assumed all along that Bourjos (if healthy) will get much of the playing time; GM John Mozeliak really wanted to upgrade the CF defense, and that's why he made the deal to acquire Bourjos.

But Jay will have a say in this, and it's at least possible for the playing time to loosely fall along platoon lines, with Jay vs. RH pitching and Bourjos vs. LHP.
This is going to be a little more interesting that I anticipated.

Bookmark and Share

Yonder Alonso on the spot for Padres

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Yonder Alonso has been through quite the voyage of self-discovery since the Cincinnati Reds selected him out of the University of Miami with the seventh overall pick in the 2008 draft.

In December 2011, the Reds sent Alonso and three other players to San Diego in a trade for starting pitcher Mat Latos. The following year, Alonso banged out 39 doubles to finish sixth in National League Rookie of the Year balloting. But just when he appeared to be building on that debut season, his luck turned south. He suffered a broken right hand on a pitch from Toronto's Aaron Loup last May, and was never the same before shutting it down for good at the end of August.

After a winter of rehab and working out back home in Miami with Manny Machado and Jon Jay, his former college teammate, Alonso is ready to reassert himself. His hand has healed, and he thinks he learned something about himself from the adjustments he had to make to compensate for his injury.

"I think I matured a little bit as a hitter, just knowing what I could and couldn't do," Alonso said. "It made me a better player in that respect."

The Padres increased their home run output from 121 to 146 last year after moving in the outfield fences at Petco Park. At the same time, their overall run production declined from 651 to 618. Positive contributions from outfielder Will Venable and rookie second baseman Jedd Gyorko couldn't offset Chase Headley's statistical dropoff and extended injury absences from Cameron Maybin, Everth Cabrera, Yasmani Grandal, Carlos Quentin and Alonso.

While Maybin is expected to miss two to three months with a torn biceps tendon and Headley is still recovering from a strained calf, Alonso is getting into the swing of things in the Cactus League. He pulled a monster home run to right field off Arizona's Randall Delgado at Peoria Stadium on Tuesday, showing a glimpse of what he's capable of when he catches a ball just right. But Alonso has a total of 20 career homers in 1,000 big league at-bats, so the Padres are under no illusions that he'll ever be a classic corner infield bopper.

"He's got good bat-to-ball skills," said Padres manager Bud Black. "He's got the ability to hit the ball over the fence and get it in the gaps and be a productive member of the lineup. If he hits 10-15 homers, that's fine as long as he gets his RBIs and scores his runs. We're looking for him to take a step forward."

Bookmark and Share

Devin Hester unlikely to return to Chicago Bears

It appears to be the end of an era in Chicago.

NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport reported Tuesday that Devin Hester likely will hit the free-agent market as the Bears have not attempted to re-sign him, according to a source who has spoken to the return specialist.

Hester, who joined the Bears in 2006 after the team drafted him in the second round as a cornerback, has been selected to the Pro Bowl three times for his exploits fielding punts and kickoffs. He shares the record for most combined return touchdowns in NFL history (19) with Deion Sanders.

In 2013, Hester compiled a career-high 1,436 kickoff return yards and an additional 256 yards and one touchdown from punt returns. However, it's worthy of note that his 52 kickoff returns were a career-high number and his 18 punt returns were a career low -- arguably the product of an embattled defense that failed to keep opposing offenses off the scoreboard during inopportune times.

Even more telling is the fact that after registering at least 20 receptions leading up to 2013, Hester didn't catch a single pass last season.

A reunion with former Bears coach Lovie Smith in Tampa Bay would be one potential option, but Rapoport opined Tuesday that such a move would be improbable.

Perhaps Hester -- who made a base figure of $1.857 million in 2013 -- could land on a contender with enough salary cap room and aspirations of elevating its special-teams unit another level. Either way, while he's still a dynamic force, the 31-year-old specialist's destination is uncertain for next season.

Bookmark and Share

Funeral for JoJo Nicolas is Saturday

The funeral service for former University of Miami football player JoJo Nicolas is at 1 p.m. Saturday at Glendale Baptist Church, 14580 SW 117 Ave., Miami. The funeral is open to the public.

A public viewing for Nicolas is from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday at Covenant Baptist Church, 1055 NW Sixth Ave., Florida City.

Nicolas, who would have been 25 on Monday, died last Wednesday, a day after he crashed his car into the back of an 18-wheeler on the MacArthur Causeway after leaving Miami Beach.

Nicolas graduated from Homestead High and played football at UM from 2007 to 2011.

“It will be a traditional going home service,’’ Nicolas’ older brother, Elliot Davis said Tuesday. “All of this is so tragic.’’

Davis, one of Nicolas’ three brothers, said a few hundred people gathered Monday night at Loren Roberts Park in Florida City for a candlight vigil.

“We wanted to celebrate his birthday in a way that wasn’t celebrating his death, but his life,’’ Davis said. “Initially we thought it would last 30 minutes but it lasted two hours.’’

Davis said several former Miami Hurricanes spoke about Nicolas, including DeMarcus Van Dyke, Brandon Harris, Allen Bailey, Sean Spence and Antrel Rolle.

“It was beautiful,’’ Davis said.


Vince Wilfork’s Future With Patriots Depends On Intangibles Versus Analytics

The New England Patriots have the difficult task of finding a common ground between analytics and intangibles this offseason when they decide how to handle Vince Wilfork’s massive salary cap hit in 2014. Sports can be a heartless business. Wilfork helped the Patriots win a Super Bowl in 2004 and AFC titles in 2007 and 2011. He’s been the team’s best defender for the last decade.

But if anything was to be gleaned from the 2014 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference on Friday and Saturday, it’s that every player breaks down to a number. Wilfork’s number in 2014 isn’t 75 — it’s his $11.6 million cap hit in the final season of the five-year, $40 million contract he signed in 2010. The Patriots can save $7.58 million by cutting the five-time All-Pro.

NFL teams expect Wilfork to be a cap casualty. But they could be looking at the 10-year pro in a purely analytical sense. Wilfork is 32 years old, he’s the second-highest-paid player on the Patriots, and he’s coming off a torn Achilles at 325 pounds. Wilfork’s eventual replacement in 2013, Sealver Siliga, played extremely well from Week 13 — when he made his Patriots debut — to the AFC Championship Game. He single-handedly helped mend New England’s porous run defense while also providing production rushing the passer.

Siliga will make more than 20 times less than Wilfork in 2013. “Is Player A worth ‘x’ more than Player B?” is the usual approach to contract analytics in the NFL. That “worth” is determined mostly by play on the field but also by leadership, heart, rapport with teammates — or “intangibles,” of which Wilfork has many. Siliga likely wouldn’t have played as well in 2013 if he wasn’t relying on Wilfork’s knowledge on the sideline to correct mistakes the third-year pro was making on the field.

Wilfork served as a highly paid coach in a walking boot last season. In an ideal world, the Patriots would bring back Wilfork on a restructured or extended contract.

His 2014 cap number would be spread over three or four seasons, but that would mean Wilfork accepting a pay cut, which athletes have proven year after year can be a tough pill to swallow. Wilfork was playing some of his best football in the back half of the 2012 season. His terrific play coincided with a move from three-technique defensive tackle (typically a pass-rushing role) back to the one-technique nose. 

He looked like a different player in 2013, however. He was almost certainly playing hurt (he missed two preseason games), and his play suffered. The Wilfork decision is not as cut and dry as the rest of the league seems to think, but only so much can be put on intangibles and the hope that Wilfork can regain his All-Pro form. Wilfork is not 20 times better than Siliga, so the Patriots would have to put a lot of stock in the unquantifiable to keep the big man on board.

Bookmark and Share

Jimmy Graham to join USO Tour

NEW YORK — All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham, receiver Pierre Garcon and punter Brandon Fields will join a USO tour of U.S. military bases in Asia.

The Saints’ Graham, Redskins’ Garcon and Dolphins’ Fields will spend one week as league ambassadors to the troops. It’s the first such tour for all three players.

The NFL and USO have combined on such visits for 48 years. In 1966, the NFL teamed with the USO and became the first sports organization to send players to Vietnam and other parts of Asia.

Bookmark and Share

Chris Perez shows good early returns

Here’s a free tip to that legion of relievers making plans to be in the Dodgers’ bullpen this season: Better be on your game early and often.

General Manager Ned Colletti has assembled a relief corps of pitchers who are used to being in at the end of games, including former closers Brian Wilson, Brandon League and Chris Perez.

Perez is the former Indians closer signed during the off-season, and his  early spring results are all of the encouraging variety.

Tuesday was a relievers game anyway, seven different members of the bullpen filling in for starter Zack Greinke, who remains out with a calf strain.

Several relievers shined in the Dodgers’ 4-1 loss to the Mariners at Camelback Ranch, but particularly encouraging was the pitching of Perez.

The right-hander was released by Cleveland after going 5-3 with 25 saves, a 4.33 ERA and a 1.43 WHIP last season. Perez, 28, wanted a chance to rebuild his career and signed a one-year deal with the Dodgers.

Tuesday he pitched a perfect fifth inning, striking out two. In two innings this spring, he has not allowed a hit or a walk and has struck out three.

Wilson actually started the game, and like Kenley Jansen, Chris Withrow and Red Patterson, did not allow a run.

J.P. Howell was the reliever who faltered, allowing three runs (two earned) and four hits in one inning. Jamey Wright also gave up a run in his one inning.
The Dodgers’ only run came via a solo home run from outfielder Trayvon Robinson, the former Dodgers prospect who was traded to Seattle in the deal for Tim Federowicz in 2011. Robinson spent two years with the Mariners and ended up with the Orioles, who released him at the end of last season before he signed back up with the Dodgers in January.

Bookmark and Share

Stephen Morris throws second-fastest football at NFL Combine

Virginia Tech QB Logan Thomas registered the fastest throwing speed at the NFL Combine, clocking in at 60 mph.

Maimi's Stephen Morris was next at 59 mph. Rather than praising the strongest arm, the test can be used more as a threshold, as few quarterbacks who post below 54 mph sustain success. That could all change with Mike Glennon, who registered 49 mph last year. David Fales and AJ McCarron clocked in at 53 mph.

Bookmark and Share

Emotional Vigil for JoJo Nicolas in Florida City

Crowds of loved ones and strangers alike gathered at Loren Roberts Park in Florida City Monday night to mark what would have been the 25th birthday of JoJo Nicolas.

"I had to come and celebrate the life of someone I considered a little brother to me," said Shannan Thomas, who first met the Hurricanes football star before she enrolled at the University of Miami.

At the vigil, she showed off a tattoo of Nicolas' jersey number 29. Though he never realized his dreams of winning a Super Bowl, his former football coach Al Golden regarded him as a born champion.

"JoJo did what many of us can't do in a lifetime. He took the gifts that God bestowed him, and honored them, and played to his fullest," Golden said.

Nicolas was fatally injured in a violent crash on the MacArthur Causeway last Tuesday, Feb. 25. He died of his injuries the next day.

Years ago, Nicolas first showed his football prowess on the same Florida City field where his vigil was held.

Many in the crowd Monday night shared memories of Nicolas on a different field at UM, where they played together as 'Canes. Several of Nicolas' former teammates told his family they are prepared to step in for their missing man, who leaves behind a newborn son.

"We want to make sure we have his back and do anything we can do for you guys, and for everybody else. We got your back JoJo," Brandon Harris told Nicolas' family.

"The people continually ask us what we need, and we just tell them, 'We're full. We're just so richly blessed.' Everybody has our back, and we appreciate that," said Nicolas' mother, Barbara Grant.

Former 'Cane Graig Cooper trembled as he spoke of his last exchange with Nicolas, which he believes was only moments before Nicolas crashed his Lexus into a tractor trailer on the MacArthur Causeway last week. One day later, Nicolas died from his injuries.

"His lady text me and said, 'Jo was looking at your text message," Cooper explained. "He died happy, and I got the last text messages in my phone. I'll never delete them."

From his death, Nicolas' loved ones hope everyone who hears his story will realize the very real dangers of distracted driving.

"[Graig Cooper] said it best when he said he was texting," said one loved one. "[Nicolas] took his eyes off the road for a second – for a second – and ran into that truck."

The official cause of the crash will be determined by Miami Beach Police.

Nicolas' viewing is scheduled for Friday, March 7 at the Covenant Baptist Church. His funeral is planned for Saturday, March 8 at the Glendale Missionary.
Funds are being raised to help cover the costs of those services, and help care for Nicolas' newborn son. For more information, visit www.jojonicolasmemorialfund.wordpress.com.

Bookmark and Share

Clinton Portis Gets Taken For An Interesting Ride In Charlotte

Clinton Portis was expecting a fancy town car to take him to the airport this morning -- instead, he got a '99 Honda Civic and a driver who wouldn't put down a bucket of fried chicken ... so, of course, he took pics. 

The former Pro-Bowl running back was out in Charlotte, NC on business -- and got hooked up with a car service that was supposed to take the VIP back to the airport in style.

Instead, Portis tells TMZ Sports ... "A 75 year old woman pulled up in a black 99' Civic, and there's two baby seats in the back."

"I put my bag on the baby seat and I got in the front. The lady was eating Bojangles [chicken]. I said 'this gotta be a prank."

It was no prank. This chicken-chowing chauffeur then asked Portis if HE knew the way to the airport. Not a good sign.

"We were at a red light and she punched the gas. We spun out. I couldn't stop laughing." 

Portis eventually made it to the airport but said everyone was staring when he climbed out of the car.

"I tried to tip her, but she declined," he tells us.

Bookmark and Share

Sam Shields ready to hit open market

Green Bay - Defensive tackle B.J. Raji and cornerback Sam Shields are set to hit the open market on March 8 and nothing seems to be in the way of them moving on to different pastures.

It's not a complete surprise, but the Packers did not use a franchise or transition tag on either free agent, meaning their best hope for retaining them is to up their offer before free agency starts or have the market prove to them that they can't do any better financially outside of Green Bay.

League sources said that deals for Raji and Shields were unlikely before both gain the right to negotiate with other teams Saturday and only a last-second assessment by the Packers would change that. Officially, free agents can't be signed until March 11, so the Packers have five days of exclusive bargaining rights and three more days of pleading their case.

Players can agree to terms with other teams starting on March 8, but they can't sign a contract until the 11th.

This marks the fourth straight year and the seventh time in nine years under general manager Ted Thompson that the Packers have not used the tag.
It would have cost the Packers $9.654 million to franchise Raji and $11.834 million to franchise Shields. Those numbers account for roughly a third of the $35 million in salary cap room the Packers have going into the new football year.

Under franchise rules, a team would have had to give up two first-round picks to the Packers if it wanted to sign one their franchised free agent. The Packers would have had the right to match the offer also. Under the transition tag, which comes at a price tag of about $1 million less than the franchise for each position, the Packers would have had only the right to match an offer.

Shields' worth became more defined Monday when Miami CB Brent Grimes agreed to a four-year deal that ESPN.com reported was worth $28 million, including $14 million guaranteed. That deal consists of the same structure as the deal Chicago's Tim Jennings signed in January (half of it guaranteed) and helps define the market for both sides.

Shields is likely to get something more in the Grimes range than the Jennings deal (four years, $22.4 million) because he's only 26. But both Grimes and Jennings had better seasons than Shields and while both are 30, they played as though they have several good years left.

It's possible the open market will be better to Shields than expected since it only takes one team to blow it all up with an unnecessarily inflated deal. Teams like Cleveland, Oakland and Jacksonville have money to burn and they might pay a premium to get Shields to come to their team.

Other corners who will be competing for free agent money are: Tennessee's Alterraun Verner, New England's Aqib Talib, Indianapolis' Vontae Davis and Denver's Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

The Packers will be counting on Shields getting no more than Grimes, which would put them back in the running for his services. They still have five days of exclusive negotiating rights with Shields and could raise their offer after seeing the Grimes deal.

Here are the mandatory one-year offers the Packers would have had to make if they tagged either Raji or Shields: 

Defensive tackle: $9.654 million 
Cornerback: $11.834 million

Defensive tackle: $8.060 million 
Cornerback: $10.081 million

Bookmark and Share

NFL sets Saints TE Jimmy Graham's franchise tag at $7.05M

The NFL has formally designated New Orleans' Jimmy Graham as a tight end for the purposes of his franchise tag value, which is now set at $7.05 million next season unless Graham and the Saints subsequently agree on a long-term deal.

The designation was released Monday after the deadline passed for NFL teams to use franchise or transition tags on players becoming free agents.

Because Graham often split out from the offensive line as a receiver would, there have been questions concerning whether the NFL's collective bargaining agreement calls for Graham to have a receiver's tag, worth $12.1 million. Graham still could file a grievance, leaving an arbitrator to decide which tag is appropriate.

Graham caught a team-leading 86 passes for 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns last season.

Bookmark and Share

Jon Beason is Giants top priority

Sources tell NJ.com that MLB Jon Beason is the Giants' top in-house free agent priority.

All other 21 Giants free agents, including Andre Brown, Linval Joseph and Justin Tuck, have been placed on the "back burner." Beason was a revelation after an early-October trade, stabilizing the Giants defense with his veteran presence and playmaking ability in the middle. Negotiations will be difficult because of his injury history -- Beason was limited to five games between 2011-12 thanks to knee and Achilles' tendon injuries.

Bookmark and Share

Luck: Having Reggie Wayne back will be ‘awesome’

The one pass Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck wished he had back last season didn’t necessarily result in an interception. It might have just been a ball that he threw behind a wide open Reggie Wayne against the Denver Broncos. Wayne turned to make a play on the ball and ended up tearing his ACL.

Colts.com recently released parts of an interview Luck had with Rich Gannon on Sirius XM NFL Blitz where he talked about the impact Wayne’s loss had on the team.

“It was tough with Reg out.  Obviously he’s (had) so much production and third downs and red zones and everything,” said Luck.  “It was a great opportunity for other guys to step up, for myself to get better as a quarterback.  Having him back is going to be awesome.”

While Wayne is healing from injury, Luck said he will be working on his footwork which should help with his accuracy.

“I think footwork, just making sure my feet are right,” said Luck.  “Pep Hamilton’s big on footwork.  Clyde Christensen, the quarterback coach, is big on getting your feet in the right place. I think that’s where all the throws start – making sure your body is in the right position.  It gives you a fighting chance.”

Bookmark and Share

Some say: Releasing Wilfork 'an easy decision'

Big Vince Wilfork is due a big sum of money this season for the Patriots . . .

 . . . that is, if they don't release him first.

Wilfork is owed $11.6 million dollars, the second-highest amount on the team behind Tom Brady.

As the Patriots look to improve their roster by adding more talent, they'll first need to free up some cap space, as they don't have a lot of wiggle room.
Steve Gregory was cut last week, and there should be more in the near future. Could one of those players be Wilfork, a defensive captain and one of the best nose tackles in the NFL?

Marc "Beatle" Bertrand from 98.5 The Sports Hub joined Mike Felger and Lou Merloni on Sports Tonight, and he feels that Wilfork will indeed be cut by the team.

"To me it's an easy decision. You move on," Bertrand said. "You rip off the band-aid. You move on, you cut Vince Wilfork. It's unfortunate because he's meant a lot to this team for a very long time. But in the best interest of having money to spend and having cap space to spend, cutting him makes a lot of sense."

But Wilfork could also stick with the team if he restructures his deal, and there has been no word yet that he would be against doing that.

Bookmark and Share

Free-agent spotlight: LB Jonathan Vilma

The New Orleans Saints have 13 players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents on March 11, plus the three players they released last month. Here’s a breakdown on linebacker Jonathan Vilma:

Position: ILB
Age: 31
Height: 6-1
Weight: 230

Scouting report: In his prime, Vilma was one of the top defensive players in the NFL, earning Pro Bowl invites in 2005, 2009 and 2010. But he has been plagued by a nagging knee injury for the last three years and appeared in only one game last season. The Saints announced last month that they plan to part ways with him when he becomes a free agent.

A former first-round draft pick and NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2004, Vilma arrived in New Orleans via trade in 2008. He immediately took over as the "quarterback" of the Saints' defense as a captain and signal caller at middle linebacker. Coaches have always raved about what a smart player Vilma is -- which was especially on display when he matched audibles with Peyton Manning in the Saints' 2010 Super Bowl victory.

Vilma is a bit on the small side for an inside linebacker, but he always made up for it with great athleticism and instincts when healthy. He had eight sacks, six interceptions and five forced fumbles during six years in New Orleans. For his career, he has 871 tackles, 10.5 sacks, 12 interceptions and 11 forced fumbles.

Projection: Vilma has said he would like to keep playing, and he has had ample time to recover from his latest clean-up surgery last summer. But the combination of his age and his injury history puts his future in jeopardy.

I don't see him as an every-down starter at this stage. But I could see a team bringing Vilma in to vie for a rotational role. His experience and leadership will boost his appeal.

Obviously Vilma was a central figure in the Saints' infamous bounty scandal -- originally being suspended for a year before the suspension was vacated on appeal. But I don’t think that would turn teams off. On the contrary, I think his character would be considered a plus, based on how coaches have always raved about Vilma.

Bookmark and Share

Eddy Rodriguez loses bet, wears FSU gear

C Eddy Rodriguez is a proud University of Miami product, so it was with great pain that he wore a Florida State shirt for drills Monday after losing a bet to 3B coach Tom Foley on the weekend UM-FSU series.

Bookmark and Share

Ryan Braun adjusting to right field

The Milwaukee Brewers are counting on Ryan Braun for a lot as he returns to the team from his PED suspension in 2013. They need him to anchor the lineup with his usual MVP level numbers while navigating the problems with his public perception so that he can return to being their face of the franchise.
That’s a lot to ask, and it might be too much to ask of Braun in one season, but there is another thing that he has to deal with this season: a switch from left field to right field.

As Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com notes, Braun has his work cut out for him this spring, and he knows it:

Of greater importance to the Brewers, he’s also making positive strides at his new position. Braun is moving from left field to right field this season to make room for Khris Davis, who hit .288 during the 65 games that Braun sat out in 2013 after being suspended in MLB’s Biogenesis investigation.

‘I’m trying to squeeze a whole semester’s worth of work into one month,’ Braun said.”

This is not the first position switch in Braun’s career. He was an abomination as a big league third baseman in his rookie season, which prompted the move to the outfield in the first place. Braun adjusted well and became a solid left fielder, something that should show that he can make this switch to right field comfortably.


Jojo Nicolas' Girlfriend Mimi Connor Speaks

The girlfriend of a former University of Miami football player who was killed in a violent crash is speaking out for the first time.

Jojo Nicolas' girlfriend Mimi Connor spoke exclusively with NBC 6 about being on the phone with Nicolas as his car crashed head-on into a semi-truck while leaving Miami Beach Tuesday.

"I heard the phone drop and I heard... I don't know what I heard, but I heard something. I'm trying not to cry right now," she said.

Connor said it was a phone call she would never forget.

"Two seconds, like I blinked, then I heard it. Like, wait, 'Hello, Jo, hello?' and he just wasn't there," Connor said.

Nicolas, a four-year letter winner as a defensive back for the Hurricanes from 2007 to 2011, was leaving Miami Beach on Interstate 395 after an early birthday celebration. He would have turned 25 Monday.

When his Lexus slammed into the rear of the 18-wheeler, the hood of his car was shredded apart. Rescuers had to pry open the roof and pull the seat back to rush him to Ryder Trauma Center.

“My heart just fell because he didn’t hang up the phone," Connor said. "That wasn’t him."

Connor said she was at his bedside while his condition fluctuated at Ryder Trauma Center.

“We get to him and we’re asking can we please get to the back? Can we please see him because we just left him and they said he was OK," she said.
But the aspiring NFL player and father died Wednesday.

"We get back there and he’s not ok," she said. "He’s gone and his body is just laying there and before they had him sitting up in the chair and back there he was just laying down. Everybody was like don’t cry, don’t cry, but he’s dead.”

As for the investigation, police said they are looking into everything including speed, alcohol and cell phone use. The investigation could take up to 30 days.
A memorial fund for Nicolas has been set up here. The money raised will go toward funeral expenses and to help in raising his newborn son.

Bookmark and Share

Chad Johnson Tells Time He Tried To Fight Ray Lewis

Remember this huge hit Ray Lewis laid on Chad Johnson back in the day?

The collision put the receiver on his back and sent his helmet flying. Lewis was penalized for unnecessary roughness and later received a fine.

Johnson, formerly known as Ochocinco, wasn’t happy about the hit at the time, and in a Throwback Thursday tale, tweeted about confronting the Ravens linebacker after the game.

“I remember waiting for Ray Lewis outside the locker room after a game for knocking my helmet off unnecessarily‚Ä?rdquo; Johnson tweeted. “He went out the side door, Ed Reed had to talk me out of putting these paws on Ray.”

Ravens tackle Michael Ohericon-article-link remembers the incident, replying to Johnson’s tweet and noting that the receiver brought friends.
“lol wasnt solo,” Oher wrote.

Johnson added that wasn’t the only time he confronted Lewis. He “stepped” to Lewis again during pre-game warm-ups at another matchup.

“2nd time we played the Ravens I caught Ray slipping in pre-game, I stepped to him, he started preaching, I was like the Lord can't help you!” Johnson tweeted. “So I square up ready to go from the shoulders and Ray is steadily reciting a scripture and I'm ready to rumble, I'm like let's run it WTF!!! Long story short Marvin Lewis broke it up and saved Ray from getting beat up in pre-game.”

So how much of Johnson’s story should we believe, considering the two have been close buddies over the years and regularly joke around? Does the lanky 6-foot-1, 188-pound receiver really think he could have taken on the fiery linebacker with a 50-pound weight disadvantage?


“Chad Ochocinco is just kidding about wanting to fight Ray Lewis for hitting him hard in a game,” tweeted The Baltimore Sun’s Aaron Wilson. “They're great friends, Lewis was his mentor.”

If Johnson’s claims really are true, he may have misunderstood Reed and Marvin Lewis’ mediating gestures.

“Johnson may not know it, but he’s the one Marvin Lewis was saving,” wrote ProFootballTalk.com’s Michael David Smith.

Bookmark and Share

Skins not showing interest in S Brandon Meriweather

ESPN Redskins reporter John Keim reports the team hasn't shown much interest in re-signing free agent SS Brandon Meriweather.

It's hard to imagine the Redskins wanting Meriweather back after he continuously was flagged for illegal hits. Washington is potentially in the market for two starting safeties, depending on how it feels about second-year S Phillip Thomas. Meriweather shouldn't find more than one-year deals on the open market.

Bookmark and Share

Sam Shields Will Test Free Agency

ESPN’s Adam Schefter broke the news today that the Green Bay Packers and Sam Shields will not be able to come to terms on a new deal prior to the beginning of free agency.

This is good news for Vikings fans.  Even they are still more interested in other free agent corners like Alterraun Verner, Brent Grimes, or Vontae Davis, this puts another body out there to drive prices down a touch and allow teams another option on players to recruit.

That isn’t to undersell what Shields has accomplished in 2013.  Here is some information about his play last season:
• 900 snaps played
• Only allowed 50% of passes thrown his way to be caught
• 16 passes defended
• 4 interceptions
• 51 tackles

Minnesota could throw a serious offfer Shields’ way.  His youth and cover ability make him a very appealing target, although he would command a price tag of around $7 million per year.  Of course, there’s always a chance that he will test free agency just to get leverage with his former club in Green Bay, but a big payday would be very hard for the young cornerback to resist.

Bookmark and Share

Sam Shields likely to command $7M annually

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel doesn't consider free agent CB Sam Shields a candidate for the franchise tag.

The Packers are currently in talks on a long-term deal for Shields and are expected to sign him before the start of free agency. Per reporter Tom Silverstein, he could command $7 million annually. Shields, 26, is Rotoworld's No. 6 corner available this offseason. He would cost $11.83 million if tagged.

Bookmark and Share

Jimmy Graham gets franchise tag

NEW ORLEANS -- The New Orleans Saints have placed their franchise tag on Jimmy Graham in order to protect the club's rights to its star tight end through next season.

The move means Graham, barring a holdout, likely will play for New Orleans next season for no less than the tight end franchise tag of $7.04 million.

It is also possible, under the NFL's collective bargaining agreement, that Graham could be tagged as a receiver because of how often he lined up at that spot. That would carry a tag of $12.3 million.

The Saints used their non-exclusive franchise tag on Graham, leagues sources told ESPN, meaning he can sign with another team willing to surrender two first-round draft picks as compensation to New Orleans.

Under the non-exclusive tag. the Saints would have a right of first refusal, allowing them match any offer sheet and retain Graham for the specific amount by the signing team.

The move, confirmed by team spokesman Greg Bensel, was expected as the two sides attempt to work out a long-term deal.

Graham also weighed in on his Twitter account.

“Confirming it's officially Franchisefriday... TAG ... I guess I'm it...”

Graham and his agent, Jimmy Sexton, likely will file a grievance through the players' association, asking that Graham be considered a receiver because he lined up out wide or in the slot on 67 percent of his snaps last season.

It's a significant distinction, and a favorable ruling would give one side serious leverage in long-term contract negotiations.

The Saints are adamant that Graham is a tight end. As general manager Mickey Loomis said recently, "Isn't that what we drafted him as? Isn't that what he made the Pro Bowl as? That's what we see him as, a tight end."

Graham's camp would counter that the league's collective bargaining agreement specifically states the franchise tag designation is based on the position "at which the franchise player participated in the most plays during the prior league year."

A neutral third-party arbitrator would be agreed upon by the NFLPA and the league's management council to hear arguments.

Graham, a third-round draft choice in 2010, has quickly emerged as one of the most prolific tight ends in the league. During his four-year Saints career, he has 301 receptions for 3,863 yards and 41 touchdowns -- including a league-high 16 touchdown catches last season.

At some point, Graham will almost certainly become the highest-paid tight end in NFL history, surpassing the $9 million average salary of New England's 2012 contract extension with Rob Gronkowski. However, Graham's side may seek well more than $10 million per year, a total that would be more in line with what wide receivers who put up similar stats are paid

Bookmark and Share

Jemile Weeks gets off to a nice start

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — Baltimore second baseman Jemile Weeks made a quick impression during the Orioles’ 4-2 win over the Tampa Bay Rays in the Grapefruit League opener Friday.

Weeks, who was acquired in December from Oakland in the Jim Johnson trade, led off the game with a double to left field off former Orioles left-hander Erik Bedard, then scored two batters later on Steve Clevenger’s one-out single.

In his next at-bat in the second inning, Weeks drew a walk from Heath Bell, stole second base, moved to third on a single by Francisco Peguero and later scored on a wild pitch.

Weeks said seeing his name atop the batting order for the Orioles’ first Grapefruit League game was “a confidence builder.”

“It’s good to get out there and let them see some of your capabilities and what you can do on the field,” he said before the game. “It was a good thing for me [to see]. . . . Hopefully it’s an indication of an idea of where they think I might be able to fit in in the lineup, and it also gives them a look of how I handle that position. I’m excited about it, and hopefully we can do this more often than not.”

Weeks is battling Ryan Flaherty for the starting second base job. Weeks has a minor league option remaining, but Manager Buck Showalter said Thursday that will not work against him.

“The sky is the limit with me,” Weeks said. “That’s how I feel. And whatever I put forth and the energy and determination you put into it, you get good results. I think the work we’re putting in here and the way I’m approaching it, I feel like there’s going to be good results.”

He’s had a strong showing already. During the club’s first intrasquad game on Wednesday, Weeks made a nice over-the-shoulder leaping grab of a line drive. In Thursday’s intrasquad game, he singled and walked. After his fourth-inning walk, he also tagged and took second base on a flyball to center.

“[It’s] not only the speed, but being smart with the speed is one of the things I try to pride myself in, from learning over the years how to be smarter and being the speed guy that I’m supposed to be,” Weeks said. “It’s one of my best quality traits.”

Chris Tillman didn’t waste any time reminding everyone why he was the winningest pitcher on the team’s staff last year. He struck out three and gave up just one hit over two innings against a representative Rays lineup.

Bookmark and Share

Ryan Braun booed, Brewers win

PHOENIX — Ryan Braun ignored loud boos in his home spring debut, producing a single and a walk as a Milwaukee Brewers split squad beat the Los Angeles Dodgers 6-5 Saturday.

Braun’s first at-bat at Maryvale Baseball Park was met with a vocal and extended chorus of boos, especially from the third-base side loaded with a large contingent of Dodgers fans.

Braun walked and scored on a single by Carlos Gomez. In the third, Brewers fans on the first-base side tried to drown out the boos with a louder round of cheers before his infield single.

The former NL MVP was suspended for the final 65 games of the season last year for his role in the Biogenesis drug scandal. Braun homered Thursday in his first at-bat of exhibition play at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, home of the Oakland A’s.

“He’s dealt with (the boos) before. It’s not new,” Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke said. “Today was nothing new.”

Yasiel Puig knocked in a run with a deep sacrifice fly to right-center field in the second. The Dodgers went without a hit until Dee Gordon led off the fifth with a bunt single.

Milwaukee starter Kyle Lohse threw two perfect innings.

“He locates all his pitches so well and he’s usually down in the zone,” Roenicke said. “He understands when you need to go after someone and when you should try to make them chase.”

Los Angeles starter Dan Haren allowed a run and three hits over two innings in his Dodgers debut.

Bookmark and Share

Jon Jay trying to find a fit with Cardinals

JUPITER, Fla. -- As Jon Jay and Pete Kozma went about fixing and finding their swings this offseason, they also had differing messages to consider.

There was one of verbal affirmation, with manager Mike Matheny sending both players home not just with a to-do list but also a reminder that the Major League club still valued them.

Then there was the point implied through the Cardinals' subsequent activity. Within a four-day span in November, Jay and Kozma -- both starting position players last year -- no longer had assurances of regular playing time. General manager John Mozeliak did not mince his words, either. Subpar results from the shortstop and center-field spots in 2013 necessitated that the Cardinals made additions in both areas.

For Jay and Kozma, their place in the organization would be determined on which message resonated more. The verdict?

"I've seen them handle it like pros," Matheny said on Sunday. "They couldn't have handled it much better."

Neither Jay nor Kozma had a chance to prove the payoffs of their offseason work before the Cardinals bumped both down the depth chart. The starting shortstop job is now Jhonny Peralta's. Even a bench spot will be tough for Kozma to find with Mark Ellis and Daniel Descalso in the mix.

Jay won't end up back in Triple-A, but he's likely to spend much more time on the bench. Best-case scenario for him would be to open the season with a timeshare in center.

For two players who combined for 1,076 plate appearances and 254 starts last season, it's bound to be a transition. They left camp a year ago as starters on a postseason-bound club. Now, they're merely seeking a fit.

"We've gotten a lot better by acquiring guys. That's what you want," Jay said. "It's easy for me. All you think about is October. You think about those playoff experiences. You think about going to the World Series and being a part of these special teams where hopefully in 10 or 15 years we talk about the great run we've been on. It's easy for me to put that [individual stuff] aside and just really focus on the team."

Both players entered the offseason knowing that future playing time would hinge predominately on whether they could improve with the bat. Kozma needs to offer more offensive production to complement his above-average defensive ability. Jay's defensive deficiencies could be better veiled with more consistency at the plate.

The two tried a series of in-season adjustments in 2013 but found it difficult to tweak mechanics in a setting where results were scrutinized. It was in pressure-less environments where the work was finally able to get done.

Kozma spent his winter days on the campus of Oral Roberts University, where he tried to right all that went wrong during the second half of the 2013 season. He practiced a shorter swing and was intentional about keeping his front side closed longer. It was his tendency to fly open that had caused him to pull so many pitches.

"Mechanically, things fell apart during the season," Kozma said. "It's pretty tough because I felt like I was doing things one way throughout the first half, and then they started pitching me differently in the second half and I couldn't adjust because my mechanics were off. It was probably one of the toughest that I've ever had at any level."

Kozma finished the season with a .217 average. His slugging percentage of .273 was the lowest of any player at any position in either league who logged at least 350 plate appearances. He had an OPS+ of 54. Though the Cardinals had one of the National League's best offenses, it became tough to hide Kozma in the bottom of the lineup by season's end.

"You practice in game time, so sometimes the results sometimes are not what you want," hitting coach John Mabry said. "But sometimes you have to go backwards to go forward. The thing is that you have to have the ability to give it time. It's tough to be playing a highly demanding position like shortstop and make these adjustments. It really says a lot about how tough he is mentally because to be asked to do that and still compete defensively [is difficult]."

Kozma delivered a pinch-hit single on Saturday, and he went 1-for-2 with a two-run double on Sunday.

"It's a little different than last year," Kozma said. "I'm going to have to compete and fight for a job. But that's why we're all here. We're here to try to make a big league team. If I don't, so be it. But I'm out here trying my best to make this squad."

Jay was exposed offensively and defensively in 2013, though he salvaged his starting job by batting .308 over the final three months. Still, he fought with his swing throughout the year.

In late April, he attempted to reduce the amount of movement in it. That worked for a while, but Jay eventually went back to his old ways. With offseason work in Miami this winter, Jay has made "some obvious adjustments," to use Matheny's words, to make his setup simpler.

"He knows what is at stake," Mabry said. "He has a good mindset. He's not going to let the game outwork him. He understands what it takes because he's been here a few years. Right now he has a really good idea of where he's at and what he's doing. Again, it's another case of the repetition part of it is a lengthy process. Until you get comfortable and trust the work that you did in a game speed situation, that's the test of all tests."

Jay entered Sunday with one hit (a single) in his first three spring at-bats. The two outs he hit into would have both gone over the fence had the wind been blowing another direction. It's been enough to get Matheny's attention.

Jay has made an impression on the backfields and in the clubhouse, too, where he continues to assert himself as a leader despite no guarantee of playing time.

"We've all seen that where a guy says, 'OK, this group has given up on me,'" Matheny said. "We made sure we told them, 'Just make sure you stay the course. Just keep working on what you're working on. This stuff will take care of itself.' You can't control what's being said. All you can really control is how you handle this, first off. And two, just come out and work. If it takes you proving people wrong, if that's your motivation, then jump all over it. Come back with a plan on how you're going to continue to get better.'

"Both of them are very capable Major League players. And I see more upside. I see better [upside] than we have ever seen before in them."

Bookmark and Share