03 June 2012

All Canes Radio With Brett Romberg & KC Jones

Every Thursday Night proCanes.com joins All Canes Radio to bring the latest news on not only current Hurricane football but also proCane news and exclusive interviews with current and former proCanes live from the All Canes Store in Coral Gables. Click here to listen to this week’s show and hear our exclusive interview with proCanes Brett Romberg and KC Jones and listen to as they talk about their NFL playing days, days at The U and much more. It is truly a MUST LISTEN.

Also, click here to check out more information on the 2nd Annual UM Sports Hall of Fame Celebrity Dolphin Tournament. BUY YOUR TICKETS NOW!

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Deleted Scenes From Upcoming Tale of Five Documentary

proCanes fans check out DELETED SCENES from Najeh Davenport’s Original Documentary: “A Tale of Five” which chronicles quite possibly the best Runniback talent to ever be accumulated at Univeristy football program at one time: Edgerrin James, Willis McGahee, Najeh Davenport, Clinton Portis and Frank Gore. The documentary will be released, in the meantime check out the deleted scenes HERE.

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Leonard Hankerson won’t be at full speed until training camp

Safety Josh Wilson will miss next week’s mini-camp and wide receiver Leonard Hankerson will not practice at full speed until training camp begins in late July, Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan said Thursday.

The Redskins held their final practice of the organized team activity phase of offseason workouts. Their mandatory full-squad minicamp is scheduled for next Monday through Thursday.

Hankerson spent the first two weeks of OTAs working on the side with the team’s trainers, but this week received clearance to return to the field. He went through positional drills, but was still held out of team drills.

Shanahan said that rather than turn Hankerson loose, the Redskins will continue to bring him along slowly. He probably won’t practice at full speed until July, when training camp begins. Shanahan said Hankerson’s hip is fine, but that the Miami product still is working his way “back into football shape.”

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Travis Benjamin Looking Good in 7-on-7 & 11-on-11 Drills

Travis Benjamin has looked better in 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills than he has in position work, when too many passes away from his body have gone through his hands.

Benjamin gets very loud when he drops a ball. Browns Stadium got very quiet amid last year’s accumulation of drops.

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DeMarcus Van Dyke Happy To Have An Off-Season Program

Second-year CB DeMarcus Van Dyke, who is participating in his first off-season program in the NFL, is soaking up as much information as possible from the coaches and the veterans. “This has helped me out a lot,” said Van Dyke. “We have the installs every day, getting a feel for the game, and we’ve got two great corners in front of me, Shawntae Spencer and Ron Bartell, who are helping me out a lot.”

Van Dyke feels good about the way the defense is shaping up. “I’m loving it,” said Van Dyke. “It’s a vision defense. We see a lot of stuff so I’m going to make a lot of plays this year coming up.”

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Ray Lewis as poet, preacher, pitchman for 'Madden NFL 13'

The new Madden NFL won't be out for a few months but judging from the way Ray Lewis acts on the game's trailer, it's safe to say they've sold at least one.

In the minute and a half long trailer, released online this week by EA Sports, Lewis lets loose an impassioned stream of dialogue that's part poetry, part prayer. He doesn't mention the game. But that's kind of beside the point.

It opens with soft, somber, piano music -- none of that thumping bass that usually introduces anything selling football. Lewis' voice comes on, dead serious.

"I've always been that I'm too small, i'm not big enough, i'm not fast enough, i don't have want it takes," he says. "I prepare so no one can take what is mine. No one can replace my mind, my heart."

He continues, sounding like a beat poet at an open mic, or a preacher rousing the Sunday regulars:

"To be the best and stay there sweat is necessary. I'm older. Of course I'm older. That's the beauty of it. Sixteen years plus different level of wisdom. Different level of understanding. Different level of punishment. i want to live loooong after my records have fallen, long after my rings have tarnished. Whatever you got to do to make sure you chase your legacy. Every second of your life. How will you be remembered? How will you be remembered? Why wouldn't you fight for the greatest achievement ever? Leave your mark to endure forever."

The trailer ends with Lewis staring steel-eyed into the camera, gridiron war paint under his eyes.

A final note from the piano.

Get chills. Pre-order.

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Devin Hester lists 1 of 3 homes

Chicago Bears wide receiver and punt return specialist Devin Hester has listed one of his three Chicago-area houses, marketing his five-bedroom, 3,100-square-foot home in Gurnee for $329,900.

Hester's primary residence is his mansion in Riverwoods, which he bought in 2008 for $2.2 million. He also owns a house in Lake in the Hills that he purchased in 2007 for $205,000.

In Gurnee, Hester is set to take a pretty serious loss on his home. He paid $436,000 for it in late 2006.

Features include 31/2 baths, an upgraded kitchen, a family room with fireplace, a master suite with two walk-in closets and vaulted ceilings, a two-story living room, a finished basement and three-car garage.

Listing agent Lori Progar of Coldwell Banker in Libertyville likened the house's decor to Hester's exciting style of play.

"The house has that dramatic Devin look to it," Progar said. "You walk in, and it has a two-story living room; it has a catwalk hallway upstairs, which opens to below; it has soaring ceilings in the master bedroom; and it's just large, open and dramatic."

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Goodell may hear Vilma's appeal of suspension June 18

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is expected to meet with New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma on June 18 to hear the linebacker's appeal of his season-long suspension for his role in the pay-to-injure bounty reward program the Saints ran between 2009-2011.A person familiar with the appeals process says Vilma's hearing date has been set because he appealed his season-long ban directly to the commissioner through his personal attorney.

The person, who spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity, said it's also possible Goodell could hear appeals that same day for the three other suspended players implicated in the pay-for-pain scheme. They are Green Bay Packers defensive tackle Anthony Hargrove, suspended eight games, Saints defensive end Will Smith, suspended four games and Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita, who received a three-game ban. Each of those players are using union representation.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello would not confirm the June 18 hearing date. "Pending a ruling from arbitrator Shyam Das, we are not commenting on the appeals process,'' he said.

The hearing date for Vilma, who also has sued Goodell for defamation, could be pushed back pending a union grievance challenging Goodell's authority.

The league and the union await a ruling by arbitrator Shyam Das on who should hear player appeals — Goodell or Art Shell and Ted Cottrell, who are appointed by both the league and the NFLPA to review discipline for on-field transgressions.

The NFLPA questions Goodell's authority to punish players for any acts before last summer's collective bargaining agreement was struck. There is no timetable for Das' decision.

Special master Stephen Burbank ruled Monday that Goodell is empowered to discipline the four players banned for their roles in the bounty program.

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Frank Gore: 49ers going to backfield by committee?

49ers RBs coach Tom Rathman suggested one running back won't carry the load in the backfield this season.

"We need to keep (Frank Gore) healthy," Rathman explained. 'We need to keep him fresh so he's an impact player for us." After Gore's receptions total plummeted last season, he's in for a decrease in carries and goal-line work with the addition of short-yardage specialist Brandon Jacobs and change-of-pace back LaMichael James. We'd advise steering clear of Gore at his current late-third round ADP.

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New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham continues to get better and better

New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham is one of the most extraordinary people you'll ever find in a NFL locker room, and it has nothing to do with the fact that he's also one of the most gifted athletes to play his position. Graham's life story has been well-documented. How he never knew his father growing up, how he was abandoned by his mother at a group home at age 11, how he was routinely beaten by older boys, how he was eventually taken in by a single mother who changed his life.

That he overcame those hurdles to become a college graduate and now a budding NFL star is remarkable. Even more remarkable is his zest for life.

It would be easy to picture Graham as a guarded or cynical person after everything he has been through. Instead, he stands out as someone who appreciates where he came from and what it took to get here.

"I know how much hard work went into me getting to this moment, so to work that hard and then not to enjoy it ..." Graham said, leaving the thought unfinished. "Not to enjoy life after so many years of not knowing, and then switching sports (from basketball to football) when you're 23 years old ... you know, life is tough, man. But whenever you've come through some things and things are a little bit easier for you, you've got to enjoy it."

From the time Graham arrived as a rookie in 2010 to his dynamic breakout performance in 2011, he has always seemed like he's just plain having a lot of fun.

And though that seems like a no-brainer, it's not always the case in the businesslike atmosphere of professional sports. He's still excited when he talks about learning the game and meeting veteran players around the NFL. It's something coaches and teammates said stands out about him.

Graham treats his whole life that way -- including his newfound passion for flying single-engine aerobatic planes. Though it might make the Saints cringe to hear about it, Graham gets especially excited when he talks about flips and stunts and inverted flights.

He has been in the air this offseason as much as he has been in the weight room or on the practice field. He has a private pilot's license, and he's working toward more advanced licenses.

He has taken friends, family and teammates for rides over the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, and he's trying to convince more and more teammates to go up in the air with him.

"Flying is the most freeing thing I've ever done," Graham said. "It's incredible because you're up there, and you're by yourself. And you're in control, and there's no boundaries -- for the most part, except for storms and the ground. And if you look out for those, you can go anywhere you want."

Take your pick among the obvious transitions to Graham's football potential, to which the sky also seems to be the limit.

In just his second year with the Saints and his third year as a full-time football player, he briefly broke the NFL record for tight ends with 1,310 receiving yards last season, a mark that was broken minutes later by the New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski.

Graham caught 99 passes and 11 touchdowns while emerging as quarterback Drew Brees' go-to target and the first Pro Bowl skill-position player in the Brees-Sean Payton era.

At 6 feet 7 inches and 265 pounds, Graham has a rare combination of size and athleticism that has made him into a new breed of weapon for the new pass-happy league.

It's amazing to consider that he's still just tapping into his potential, but that's exactly how he feels heading into his third season. It wasn't long ago, he recalled, that he still was learning the difference between 4-3 and 3-4 defenses.

"I see there's a lot of room for improvement whenever I watch film. There's a lot of stuff I left out there that I'm still agitated about," said Graham, who was then asked to describe what he can improve on.

"The little things, the things people don't notice," Graham said. "I see an extra 30 receptions out there that I left. I see chances where I could have done a little bit more on some blocks, sprung a couple of running backs free for a couple more yards, just things like that. You know, I'm a young player, and I'm young to the game, so every day is a learning experience for me."

So far, Graham seems to be picking up where he left off on the practice field. He has been the unofficial leader in receptions during the handful of summer practice sessions open to the media.

He's an obvious safety net for current quarterback Chase Daniel, just as he has been for Brees. On Tuesday, Daniel floated one short pass high into the air like an alley oop, and Graham made an athletic leap to get his fingertips on it and tip it to himself.

Graham knows that opposing defenses will pay a lot more attention to him now that he's not a secret weapon anymore, but that's something he saw midway through his historic 2011 season. And it helps that the Saints' offense is so loaded with weapons that defenses have to pick their poison.

"At the end of last year I think teams played a little bit more detailed to me," Graham said. "I could tell that they were just paying attention to me more and playing different looks, and I was still able to find some holes. And with this offense that we have, it's hard to really stop one person because if you're focusing on one person, (Marques) Colston is going to go out there and light it up. Or (Darren) Sproles. Or Devery (Henderson).

"We are so dynamic, and we have so many weapons, and that biggest weapon being Drew Brees, so it's hard to really defend that."

Graham has also gotten more attention off the field this year, as expected, along with his newfound celebrity. But he has embraced that too.

He got to tell his life story to Oprah Winfrey. He got to mentor a troubled teenager as part of USA Network project. He hosted a youth football camp in New Orleans.

"A chance to maybe touch a little kid and to really inspire him to maybe become something or get through something is why I do it," Graham said. "To have a camp here and then to give the proceeds to Boys Town Louisiana and help those kids out that really need it means a lot to me.

"These are great opportunities for me."

And he's enjoying them all to the fullest.

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Schiano finally addresses the Kellen Winslow trade

After coach Greg Schiano and the Bucs decided to trade tight end Kellen Winslow to the Seahawks two weeks ago, Schiano declined to address his rationale for making the decision despite our best efforts to ask pointed questions on the subject.

But, as it turns out, Schiano did get around to talking about the subject, though in somewhat vague terms.

In talking to Chicago Tribune columnist Dan Pompei, for a story on nationalfootballpost.com, Schiano gave a sense of his thinking behind moving Winslow, suggesting that Winslow’s lack of consistent offseason attendance did, indeed, play a significant role.

“Some of it is voluntary,” Schiano said. “I can’t make them be here for every part. Would I have liked him here? Sure. We had 87 guys here. But that wasn’t the only reason we decided to do what we did. We just didn’t think it was the best fit for us. It was a bunch of things, an accumulation of things. Some of it is projecting, how will this project moving forward.”

Those comments came in the same conversation in which Schiano defined a “Buccaneer man” thusly: “Guys you can trust. Guys who believe in what we’re doing. Guys who are accountable to each other – things that are becoming more rare every day in our world.”

You have to wonder whether Schiano and the Bucs felt though Winslow could be accurately described as such. Something tells us the answer is no.

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Rob Chudzinski helped Carolina offense improve from 32nd in NFL to 5th last year

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Steve Smith was certain Rob Chudzinski wouldn't be calling plays for the Panthers this season.

Like many of his teammates, Smith thought someone would offer Carolina's offensive coordinator a head coaching job during the offseason. Chudzinski did interview with Jacksonville, Tampa Bay and St. Louis, but was never was offered job.

Now he's back with Carolina — and his players say they're selfishly thrilled.

"He's an innovator," Smith said. "His offense is always evolving and he doesn't allow you to get comfortable. You just can't get comfortable, which is great."

Tight end Greg Olsen, one of the many players who thrived under Chudzinski, called him "one of the top offensive minds in the league" and said he was stunned when he didn't get an offer.

"Believe me, we feel fortunate he didn't get any of those jobs," Olsen said.

Despite a shortened offseason in 2011, Chudzinski helped pumped life back into a stagnant offense.
Check that, a wretched offense.

The Panthers were last in the NFL in virtually every major statistical category — points scored, total offense and passing offense — two years ago under the highly conservative offense run by former coordinator Jeff Davidson. They improved to fifth in points scored and seventh in total offense last season under Chudzinski.

The Panthers were able to make the transition from a run-first offense to a "big chunk" offense featuring a vertical passing game despite having a shortened offseason.

Quarterbacks coach Mike Shula was instrumental in getting rookie Cam Newton to quickly understand how to read NFL defenses. The former Heisman Trophy winner threw for a rookie record 4,051 yards and score 35 touchdowns — 21 passing and 14 rushing.

Smith joined Newton at the Pro Bowl, enjoying his third-most productive season with 79 receptions for 1,394 yards receiving and seven touchdowns.

Carolina's running game started slow, but came on strong as DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart combined for 1,587 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns.

That success has led to budding optimism.

If Chudzinski can do what he did last season in such a short amount of time, what can he do this year with a full offseason?

Chudzinski is cautiously optimistic, but has stressed to his players that past success is irrelevant.

Each year, he said, offers different challenges.

Gone are receiver Legedu Naanee and tight end Shockey, but the Panthers picked up versatile fullback Mike Tolbert and will get receiver David Gettis and tight end Gary Barnidge back from injuries.

But before the Panthers take a step forward, Chudzinski is ready to take a step back.

"It's nice to actually have an offseason and be able to go back to basics," Chudzinski said. "That's kind of what we've focused on is a lot of things we've had to throw in and put in quickly last year, now you get a chance to take a step back and reteach it step-by-step. I think it's been beneficial to everybody to be able to do that."

Not that the Panthers weren't able to adapt last year.

Sure, they finished 6-10, but it was the defense and special teams that struggled and cost them games.

"His flexibility, his versatility and what he can do from parts that he's able to work into his existing philosophy," Olsen said. "There's not a lot of guys like that around the league that are willing to make some changes and put a few wrinkles in."

Those wrinkles included, among other things, an across-the-grain throwback pass from Naanee to Newton, who came 2 yards from scoring his first receiving touchdown and a few college option plays run by Newton and Williams.

But the one that sticks in everyone's mind and displayed Chudzinski's guts was the one his players dubbed "the annexation of Puerto Rico," a reference to similar trick play run in the 1994 kids' movie Little Giants.

Leading 14-0 and faced with a second-and-6 at the 7-yard line, Houston's defense was focused on stopping Newton, who'd already run for 13 touchdowns at that point in the season.

With his offensive line standing straight up, providing a picket fence of sorts, Newton stepped up center and quickly snapped the ball and spun out to the right. What most Texans defenders didn't see was Newton stick the ball between back of fullback Richie Brockel's legs. Brockel, who'd lined up over right guard, took off to the left side of the field while everyone else rolled to the right as a decoy. He scored to give Carolina a 21-0 lead in a play that would make highlight reels nationwide.

"When we put that play in, I never thought in a million years that play was going to work, let alone get a touchdown," wide receiver Brandon LaFell said at the time.

Now the question is what will Chudzinski do this year for an encore.

"I don't know, I'm going to have to watch a few more movies to see if I can figure one out," Chudzinski said with a laugh.

The players certainly can't wait to find out.

But they also seem to realize they'll need to cherish this time they have with him because it's not going to be long before someone comes knocking on his door and steals him away.

"It's good to have him back, but eventually we all know he's going to move on," Smith said. "With any good coordinator, they move on — unlike our prior (coordinators) here who just kind of lingered. I think that just shows you how good he is."

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Tweet of the Day: Chris Perez on measuring “heart and balls”

Indians’ closer and proCane Chris Perez woke up this morning and had some thoughts about sabermetrics:

“Saber metrics are good for some stats, but you will never be able to quantify a players' heart and balls”

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The Ryan Braun Rules are in effect! MLB, MLBPA Announce modifications to joint drug agreement

In the recently-completed Collective Bargaining Agreement, the league and the union agreed to make several modifications to the Joint Drug Agreement which governs drug testing, suspensions and whatnot in baseball.  They just announced that they have reached agreement on the modifications.

They’re all listed below. The ones that seem notable or major to me in bold. Many of them are designed to specifically address the Ryan Braun fiasco from this spring:

• Adding hGH blood testing during Spring Training, during the off-season, and for reasonable cause.  The parties also agreed to study expanding hGH testing to the regular season.
• Increasing the number of random tests during the season and off-season.
• Modifying the Collection Procedures of the Program to clarify when collectors must deliver specimens to the courier, and how specimens should be stored prior to delivery to the courier.
• Modifying the Appeals procedures of the Program, including the circumstances under which procedural deviations will result in the invalidation of test results.
• Creating an Expert Panel of recognized ADD/ADHD experts to advise the Independent Program Administrator (“IPA&rdquoWinking on Therapeutic Use Exemption (“TUE&rdquoWinking applications for ADD/ADHD medications, and another expert panel of medical professionals to advise the IPA on TUE applications for other medications.
• Strengthening the protocols for addressing use by players of drugs of abuse.
• Permitting public announcement of the specific substance that resulted in a player’s positive test result or discipline.
• Making players who are suspended for violating the Program prior to the All-Star Break (including during Spring Training and the preceding off-season) ineligible to be elected or selected for the All-Star Game.
• Establishing a protocol for evaluating and treating players who may suffer from an alcohol use problem or who have engaged in off-field violent conduct.
• Clarifying the rules for violations for use or possession of prohibited substances based on evidence other than positive test results (“non-analytical positives.&rdquoWinking
• Increasing the penalties for criminal convictions for possession or use of drugs of abuse (including stimulants).

Some of these, such as the no-All-Star Game for those who test positive thing have been long sought-after. I’ll also note, building on yesterday’s post, that while there is now something for evaluating people with alcohol problems, and something about increasing discipline for drug convictions, there is nothing about DUI incidents or convictions. So close, guys!

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Eddy Rodriguez Leads Storm

Eddy Rodriguez went 3-for-4 and drove in three runs and the Storm racked up 15 hits Thursday night in an 8-5 victory over the High Desert Mavericks in front of 1,325 fans at Stater Bros. Stadium.

The victory pulled Lake Elsinore (32-29) to within a game of the first-place Mavericks (33-28).

Each Storm batter had a hit, and designated hitter Tommy Medica joined Rodriguez in driving in three runs. First baseman Conner Powers also had two hits.

Lake Elsinore trailed early, but scored four times in the fifth inning to take the lead. That gave starter Matt Andriese the victory after he struck out four and walked one in five innings.

Three relievers held the victory, including closer Kevin Quackenbush, who worked a scoreless ninth inning for his 12th save.

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Facing old team isn't weekend motivation for Chris Perez

DETROIT -- Almost three years ago, the Indians sent third baseman Mark DeRosa to St. Louis for relievers Chris Perez and Jess Todd. DeRosa and Todd are no longer part of the equation, but Perez returns to St. Louis Friday as the top closer in the big leagues with 19 saves.

Perez downplayed the reunion as the Indians head west to begin their first interleague series under National League rules at Busch Stadium.
"I was only there for 1 1/2 years," said Perez. "It's not like I was there for 10 years. I didn't help them win anything. I was a middle reliever, I don't think they really cared [that they traded me]."

Perez was acquired by the Cardinals as the 42nd overall pick in the 2006 draft out of the University of Miami. He made his big-league debut in 2008 and was traded to the Indians on June 27, 2009.

"I'm happy to go there because I have a bunch of friends left on the team," said Perez. "I played with pretty much half of their roster coming up through the minors. I'll just be happy to play big-league ball with the guys I started my career with."

Perez has converted 19 straight saves after blowing an opportunity on opening day this year. He was a closer throughout his minor-league career with the Cardinals and saved eight games for them in the big leagues in 2008 and 2009.

"I closed a little bit for them, but they never really gave me my shot," said Perez. "It is what it is. I don't know all the details on what happened at the trade deadline. There has been some rumors that it was up to the Indians and they could have picked me or Jason Motte [St. Louis' current closer].
"I don't know. I don't care. I'm glad I got traded. I got a good opportunity here. It worked out on their end, too. They won the World Series last year."

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Ryan Braun opinion won’t be released

NEW YORK (AP) — Major League Baseball and its players’ association decided there will be no written decision in the case overturning Ryan Braun’s drug suspension, while also changing the rules that allowed the Milwaukee Brewers outfielder to get his 50-game penalty thrown out.

MLB and the union announced changes to their drug-testing agreement Thursday in the wake of the Feb. 23 decision by arbitrator Shyam Das to overturn the suspension that followed a positive test by Braun, the NL MVP.

As part of the deal, the sides agreed privately that Das will not issue a written opinion in the case, two people familiar with the deal told The Associated Press. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sides’ decision not to announce the lack of a written decision.

Braun’s side argued his urine sample was handled improperly because the drug collector kept it at home from Saturday,

Oct. 1, until the following Monday, when he took it to a Federal Express office for shipment to the testing laboratory outside Montreal. The drug policy stated that the sample was to have been delivered to a FedEx office immediately.

Das overturned the suspension and was to give a written opinion within 30 days, but the sides asked him to hold off. Management fired Das last month and replaced him this week with Fredric Horowitz, a veteran of baseball and NHL salary arbitration cases.

The sides agreed to several changes in the drug agreement in the wake of the Braun decision. Lawyers for the Milwaukee outfielder argued the collector from Compehensive Drug Testing (CDT) did not following the section of the joint drug agreement that stated “unless instructed otherwise by CDT, the collector shall deliver the specimens to a FedEx office immediately following the completion of the collection.”

The new agreement replaces that language with “absent unusual circumstances, the specimens should be sent by FedEx to the laboratory on the same day they are collected.”

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Chris Perez appears to be 'the one that got

QUESTION: The Indians head to town tomorrow night and bring along Chris Perez, who leads the American League in saves with 19. Back in 2009 when the Cardinals traded Perez to Cleveland for Mark DeRosa, did you envision him eventually having the kind of success he is now?

Perez was an All-Star last season but was better in 2010, his first full season in Cleveland. The Cardinals opted to move Perez rather than Jason Motte for Mark DeRosa partly because of uncertainty about Perez’ ability to handle the pressure of closing. Perez has answered forcefully, albeit not yet in a pennant race. Perez has saved 78 games the last three seasons. He was the first draftee of the Luhnow Era to reach the majors and the only Cardinals pick in that time to become an All-Star.
Did I see this coming? Not in STL because I questioned whether he would get the chance. Not yet 27, Perez has a chance for some prolific career numbers because of his early exposure to the role. A marginal walk-strikeout role seems his most obvious blemish but that, too, has improved this season. Right now he appears to be “the one that got away.”

Sure. Of all the players the Cardinals drafted back then, Chris Perez was perhaps the easiest to project into a role. A closer in college, Perez was a closer throughout the minors, and when he reached the majors it was clear he had a closer’s repertoire, a closer’s power, and that less tangible closer’s mentality. The gravitational pull between him and the ninth was obvious. The only question was where. The answer came when the Cardinals decided to keep Jason Motte, trade Perez, and let him find the saves he was bound to collect in Cleveland.

At the time, both Perez and Motte suggested they might have futures as closers because they threw hard and threw strikes. The rub was whether one or both would develop a secondary pitch and it appears that both have. The downside of making the trade with Cleveland was not so much that Perez got away but that DeRosa was hampered physically, almost from the moment he got here.

Chris Perez was clearly destined to become a major league closer. At the time the Cards had a closer and apparent closers-in-waiting, so the deal for Mark DeRosa made sense. Had DeRosa stayed healthy and re-signed in St. Louis, it might still make sense. But DeRosa broke down, Perez developed as expected and Cardinal Nation came to greatly regret his departure.

KEVIN WHEELER (Host of “Sports Open Line” on KMOX)
Absolutely. He’s always had two swing and miss pitches, an fearless attitude and experience at the position going back to college. The one thing he was missing in his early days with the Cardinals was command, but that has really come along. In fact, his walk rate has gone down every season since he debuted with the Cardinals during the 2008 season and that is directly linked to the success he’s having now.
I spoke to him on Wednesday as a preview for the Cardinals-Indians series this weekend and he said the very same thing, acknowledging that his command needed improvement when he broke in with the Cards. Perez also said that he’s refined his approach to attacking hitters. He remains aggressive but also says he’s more conscious of which hitters can do more damage than others. That maturity has given him the ability to turn “stuff” into results.

LARRY BOROWSKY (Editor of the “Viva El Birdos 2012 Baseball Annual&rdquoWinking
Yes, I did.  Perez has always had the repertoire of a prototypical closer – explosive fastball, hard slider – and the hyperaggressive attitude to match. He has never been any fun to hit against. He held minor-league batters to an average of about .180, while recording more than twice as many strikeouts (151) as hits allowed (61). As a Cardinal he held big-league opponents to a .215 average and fanned over a batter an inning. Perez hadn’t fully transitioned from thrower to pitcher at the time the Cards dealt him, but the markers of potential dominance were always there.
I was sorry to see Perez go but thought (and still think) it was a defensible trade because the Cardinals were dealing from a position of strength. Despite losing Perez, they had Jason Motte, Eduardo Sanchez, Mitchell Boggs, Fernando Salas, and others in the majors or the high minors in mid-2009. They felt the makings of a good bullpen were in place even without Perez.  Although that assessment looks a little shaky at the moment, it may yet prove accurate.

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Frank Gore: No beef with Jonathan Vilma, Saints

San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore says he has no problem with former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams mentioning him in the now infamous audiotape before the 49ers-Saints playoff matchup in January. In fact, he thinks it is a sign of respect. Williams’ part in the bounty episode got him suspended indefinitely by the NFL.

“We’ve got to do everything in the world to make sure we kill Frank Gore’s head,” Williams said on the tape. “We want him running sideways. We want his head sideways.”

“When you hear another team call your name, that means respect,” Gore said to the Sacramento Bee. “That’s a lot of respect, and you’re doing something right for your team. So it don’t bother me at all.”

Gore said he also didn’t have an issue with former high school and college teammate Jonathan Vilma. Vilma was suspended for the entire 2012 season for his role in the bounty scandal.

As for Vilma and the Saints defenders, Gore said the threatening talk in the New Orleans meeting room didn't translate to the field the next day. The Saints weren't flagged for a single penalty in the game, a 36-32 win by the 49ers. Defensive end Will Smith (four games) and former Saints defenders Anthony Hargrove (eight games) and Scott Fujita (three) also were suspended.

"When we played them, I felt it was how the game was supposed to be played," Gore said. "And I played high school ball with Vilma, and I know he's not that type of guy. He's a hard worker, he enjoys the game of football and he's going to give it his all every snap."

Gore had 1,211 rushing yards and eight touchdowns last season and had 13 carries for 89 yards and seven receptions for 38 yards in the 49ers’ 36-32 win over the Saints.

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PHOTO: Travis Benjamin at Cleveland Browns OTA


Cleveland Browns rookie wide receiver Travis Benjamin (80) makes a leaping catch during an off-season practice at the NFL football team's headquarters in Berea, Ohio Wednesday, June 6, 2012.

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Brandon Harris: “OTA’s Are A Good Opportunity For Me”

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Chase Ford Performing Well at Eagles OTAs

Free agent tight end Chase Ford from the University of Miami made two nice catches, one of which came in the end zone in heavy traffic on a throw from Nick Foles.

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Eyes on Spencer Adkins at OTAs

The Falcons’ Spencer Adkins and Robert James have been around for a while now. They must be able to take the field in a pinch. Adkins is listed on the depth chart as his backup. Adkins played in Nicholas' spot in the Falcons' 24-2 loss to the New York Giants in January in their wild-card playoff game. A sixth-round pick out of Miami in 2009, Adkins has one career start under his belt – in the 2011 season finale against Tampa Bay with Nicholas out.

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Olivier Vernon Went From Dolphins Youth Camper To Dolphins Draft Pick

Vernon, now 21 and a member of Miami’s 2012 rookie class, remembers his experience at the team’s youth football camp in 2003 like it just happened. It was then that Vernon decided for himself that football and not soccer was going to be his passion and he planned his future.

“Actually, during my first week of OTAs last month that was going through my head,” said Vernon, a defensive end who was chosen in the third round of the NFL Draft by the Dolphins out of the University of Miami. “Where we have lunch now, that’s where I would eat lunch as a kid because that’s where we had the little snacks and stuff. Then they brought us into the team meeting room and we watched the season highlights of the Dolphins. What are the odds of me being in the team meeting room again as a Miami Dolphin?”

If the resume Vernon put together for a high school a project is any indication, he already was setting some favorable odds. His objective at the top of the page read, “To obtain a position in the National Football League.” Clearly a lofty goal to some at the time, but Vernon was serious.

The fact that he was named the MVP of the Dolphins football camp in that summer of 2003 added credence to Vernon’s vision, and that was the third consecutive summer he participated.

His father, Lascelles, was a soccer player back in his native Jamaica before an unfortunate accident ended his career in high school, so while initially he was saddened by his son’s choice to stop soccer for football, he had no doubt that Olivier would reach his goal.

“Anything he puts his mind to he always sees it through and he doesn’t like to lose,” Lascelles Vernon said. “He’s very competitive and that’s what he wanted to do since he was a kid. It was very exciting watching him at Dolphins camp and everyone was amazed at how fast he was and how much stamina he had. That came from soccer and he was excited to tour the facilities and meet the Dolphins players.”

Bernadette Vernon proudly displays the jerseys her son wore all those years ago in Davie, including one with former Dolphins quarterback Jay Fiedler’s autograph on the back among others. She also kept the autographed Dolphins football Olivier received for being named as the camp's MVP along with lots of photos of him and his friends practicing and playing.

After watching her son excel at soccer as well as an art student, Bernadette also was caught a little off guard about his newfound passion for football. He pursued it at Miami American High School and used the skills he learned at Dolphins Camp to get a leg up on the competition and his mother realized this would be his calling.

“He knew what he wanted do from the time he was in middle school and I saw how much fun he was having at that football camp,” said Bernadette, who got to watch Olivier play in the same stadium as the Dolphins with the Miami Hurricanes. “It’s incredible. Sometimes I have to pinch myself to remind me that it’s real and that my son who wrote on his resume that he was going to be in the NFL is there now.”

Vernon can laugh now about what he was like as a young camper taking instructions from former Dolphins and NFL players. Tonight he will actually experience a role reversal with the rest of the Dolphins rookies as the student will become the teacher at a special rookie clinic for kids. There is no doubt Vernon will enjoy sharing his story with them.

“If they ask me about what it was like I’ll enjoy doing that because kids look up to people like us at this level,” he said. “That’ll be fun if I can just let them know that dreams can come true and that I was sitting right where they were when I was their age dreaming about being here.”

Oliver Vernon’s dream started at the Dolphins Academy football camps 10 years ago, sign up today and maybe yours will start there as well. Go to www.dolphinsacademy.com or http://www.miamidolphins.com/finatics/fins-kids/youth-programs/spring-summer-camps.html.

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Jimmy Graham ready for takeoff

METAIRIE, La. – If you thought New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham soared last season, wait until you hear this.

Graham has earned his pilot’s license and he’s instrument rated. He also is working on his aerobatic certification. Yep, Graham is flying planes -- and sometimes flying them upside down.

“Flipping planes is pretty neat,’’ Graham said.

Graham said he flew every day last week and gave some friends and teammates an over-head view of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and the city of New Orleans. Flying has becomes Graham’s passion.

“I remember the first time I went up, it was in a little aerobatic plane and we were inverted for quite a while,’’ Graham said. “I’ve been addicted ever since. It’s very challenging. It’s something you always have to pay attention to.’’

That attention to detail could translate into football success. Although Graham had one of the best seasons ever by a tight end (99 catches for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns) in his first full season as a starter, Graham wasn’t completely happy with his season.

“I see a lot of room for improvement,’’ Graham said. “Whenever I watch film, there’s a lot of stuff I left out there that I’m still agitated about and I’ve got to get better at those things."

What can Graham possibly improve after putting up such huge numbers?

“Just all the little things, the things I guess people don’t notice,’’ Graham said. “I see an extra 30 receptions that I left out there. I see things that I could have done better in blocks and spring running backs free for a couple more yards. I’m a young player, plus I’m young to the game. Every day’s a learning experience for me.’’

This is the first year Graham’s had a full offseason program. As a rookie, he obviously couldn’t join the team until after the draft. Last year, the lockout prevented the offseason. In addition to improving physically, Graham said he’s watched a lot of film this offseason.

“It’s helped me a lot,’’ Graham said. “The chance to watch all the plays from last year – all the drops, all the missed opportunities and that’s what I’ve focused on film-wise. Just getting better, watching defenses and trying to recognize things faster.’’

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Devin Hester thinks kickoff returns will be limited

We've heard a lot about the "Devin package" this offseason. The Chicago Bears have talked up Devin Hester's role in the offense repeatedly, just like they do every offseason.

The plan is to create special plays for Hester on offense and let him defend his league-leading punt return average. It sounds like Hester will not be involved on kickoffs much.

"I think every now and then, I'm going to do kickoffs," said Hester, according to a Tuesday report from the Chicago Tribune. "It will depend on how the game is going."

The Bears already have talked up free-agent addition Eric Weems as the man to replace Hester on returns. They also signed Devin Thomas, as they prepared to move Hester off kickoffs, something he hasn't been that effective doing in recent years anyway.

The news brings up a familiar debate in Chicago: Should the Bears "waste" Hester's energy on offense when he could save it for returns?

He isn't ranked so high on the "Top-100: Players of 2012" because of his wideout skills.

Based on the reduction in Hester's kickoff duties, this isn't a debate that is likely to end anytime soon.

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Reggie Wayne eager to see Luck in action

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The Rock Sells Massive Mansion

The Rock has sold his massive, stunning home in Hidden Hills for very close to the $4.9 million asking price ... TMZ has learned.

Sources tell us the estate -- located 22 miles from Hollywood -- is being purchased by a businessman.  It's currently in escrow and scheduled to close shortly.

The 9,120 square foot house has 6 bedrooms, 7 bathrooms, an infinity pool and an awesome home theater. 

The lucky realtors -- Tomer Fridman from Sotheby's International who represents the buyer and Andrew Manning from Prudential who reps The Rock -- should score a nice commission.

Click here to see photos of the estate.

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Warren Sapp dishes and blitzes in upcoming autobiography

In his new autobiography, "Sapp Attack: My Story," former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Oakland Raiders defensive tackle Warren Sapp goes off on a number of subjects. The book doesn't come out until August 21, but it's already gained some traction -- and a bit of controversy -- because the always-outspoken Sapp (now an analyst on the NFL Network) gets some pretty prominent people in his sights in the book -- former teammates like Trent Dilfer and Keyshawn Johnson, former Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, and others.

Sapp went on Wednesday's "Dan Patrick Show" to talk about the book, and as always, he was sufficiently incendiary in his delivery.

On Sapp pleading with Trent Dilfer to "stop throwing pick-sixes": "I ripped Trent Dilfer? What did I say about Trent Dilfer that you would consider a rip? Because when I rip, I really rip. When you leave the University of Miami -- that great place, Quarterback U, and your [NFL] quarterback throws four touchdowns and 18 picks, what are you going to say? It was what was being said at the front of the room by [Tony] Dungy. If we don't turn the ball over ... and it wasn't 'we,' it was him. It was that simple. When you're playing Buc Ball, the last thing you can do is turn it over."

On Keyshawn Johnson: "Listen, man -- it ain't no secret that me and Keyshawn didn't get along. It was more about his professionalism. When somebody follows you around the Pro Bowl for three or four days, and says, 'Listen, let's unite and we'll win the championship. I've got the offense, you've got the defense.' And you hear about him flying across the country for [former New York Jets head coach] Bill Parcells' OTAs ... but he won't come to Tony Dungy's offseason conditioning? Last time I checked, Florida's a lot nicer in the summer than New York."

The most controversial comments in the book will undoubtedly be about former Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, the coaching genius who furthered the Tampa-2 scheme that took the NFL by storm in the first decade of the new millennium. Kiffin is about as well-regarded, professionally and personally, as any coach can be, so stuff like this might go down a bit hard in some quarters:

On Monte Kiffin: "There was a certain game we were playing in the Trans-World dome in St. Louis -- the 1999 NFC championship game. It was third-and-12, and we called our famous 'check-with-me' blitz, and I'm pissed, I'm like, 'Just line up the four guys to rush, please?' We barely get a chance to go after the quarterback -- let's get one right here. [Kurt Warner] will throw a slant, we'll tackle him, they'll try a long field goal or punt or something like that. Kurt Warner sees the blitz and calls timeout. Now, there's a rule Monte Kiffin has. If we have this 'check-with-me' blitz on, and the quarterback audibles, we have to check to [Tampa-2]. There's nothing else we can do but check to 2, because he sees the blitz. The only reason I know this now is because Kurt Warner works with me [at the NFL Network], and I had a feeling he was changing the play.

"So, he goes over and pleads with Mike Martz, and Dick Vermeil sends Ricky Proehl on the takeoff instead of the hitch. If he goes with the hitch, and we pick it off or it goes back the other way, the game is over. [Linebacker Derrick] Brooks is going to the sideline, and I'm not going to the sideline. I tell Brooks, 'You tell [Kiffin] we've gotta go to [Cover-2], right?' and Brooks says, 'Yeah, yeah, I'll tell him.' He goes over to the sideline, comes back, and says, 'We're blitzing again.' Ricky Proehl catches the ball [for a touchdown], we lose 11-6, I lose my shot at the Super Bowl."

On the Jeremy Shockey "snitch" story that reportedly almost cost Sapp his NFL Network gig: "You'd have to ask the people who sat down and decided if I had a job or not, Dan. I regret that I put it out there with that word. That's the one thing -- I apologize to the man for calling him a snitch, because that's the wrong connotation at any point, at any time. It wasn't about [that Shockey wasn't the 'snitch'] -- it was about the connotation of the word and what it means."

On his financial situation: "I'll be all right. Damn -- your momma never told you to believe none of what you read?"

On whether he would let his son play football: "He loves lacrosse, Dan!"

And there you have it.

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Ryan Braun not focused on all-star balloting

If Ryan Braun was either surprised at how high he ranked in all-star balloting in the early going or disappointed that he wasn't higher, he didn't let on Tuesday.

In the initial results of fan balloting, Braun ranked third behind Los Angeles' Matt Kemp and St. Louis' Carlos Beltran. He was 800,000 or so votes behind Kemp but only 100,000 or so behind Beltran.

Braun was the leading vote-getter among all NL players last year and regularly has led the outfield voting in being selected four consecutive times. But, after a tumultuous winter in which his positive drug test and successful appeal of a 50-game suspension played out publicly, there was reason to wonder how the voting fans would respond.

Braun insisted it wasn't something on his mind.

“I’ve always been appreciative of people’s support. It’s always meant a lot to me,” Braun said. “It’s certainly not a priority. I’m trying to focus on getting healthy and helping our team get back to where we expect to be.”

'It's not something I've ever given a lot of thought to. I've always been appreciative of the support of the fans in all-star voting. Beyond that, it's not something I think about day to day, that's for sure. 

"It's always a tremendous honor to have the opportunity to represent the city of Milwaukee, the Brewers franchise. It's something I've always enjoyed, so definitely a good thing."

Braun said the support of Brewers fans means a lot to him, especially with the injury-riddled club off to a slow start.

"The people here have continued to support us in spite of the fact that we haven't gotten off to a good start," he said. "That always means a lot. Things aren't always going to go the way you want them to as a team but the fact they've continued to support us, continued to show up and help create a great atmosphere and environment helps us when we're scuffling."

Braun is back in the lineup after missing three of the last four games with an ailing Achilles tendon as well as a sore hip. Asked how he felt after the team's off day Monday, he didn't give a glowing report.

"Eh. I feel all right," he said with a smile."

Asked if it's something he'll have to deal with the rest of the season, Braun said, "I don't know. I hope not. You always hope it goes away but any injury you deal with during the season, it rarely goes away completely. You look around the league and you see a lot of guys, the same thing. Whenever you have something, it's really difficult for it to go away, especially when you play every day and you play hard. I can't control when I have to sprint for a ball or dive for a ball or slide into a base.

Braun aggravated the heel problem and also hurt his hip sliding into second base on a steal Friday with the Brewers trailing the Pirates, 6-2, in the sixth inning.  He and manager Ron Roenicke have talked about the wisdom of stealing if aggravating the injuries could occur but Braun didn't sound willing to just shut it down.

"At times, yeah (it makes sense not to run)," he said. "But when you're competing, adrenaline kind of takes over. If they're giving me a stolen base, I feel like it's stupid not to take it. They give us times on pitchers.

"I'll try to pick and choose my spots but I think it's an important part of my game and an important part of our game. There's even more emphasis on it when you lose a guy like Prince (Fielder) because we've got to find a way to manufacture runs. 

"The Achilles has been there for over a month. I've just been dealing with it. Everything is on my right leg. When you're trying to work through an injury, the rest of your body compensates. Because my Achilles was sore, it led to this hip thing. I went to slide the other night and tried to do something different to avoid hurting (the Achilles) again and this happened.

"Every year, I've dealt with something. For the most part I've been able to work through injuries in the past and I hope this is the same thing. I'm just focused on today and trying to get through today." 

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PHOTO: Travis Benjamin at Cleveland Browns OTA


Cleveland Browns rookie wide receiver Travis Benjamin grabs a pass during practice at the NFL football team's headquarters in Berea, Ohio Tuesday, June 5, 2012.

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Nate Webster gets 12 years for sex with teen

Former Cincinnati Bengal Nathaniel “Nate” Webster was sent to prison for 12 years today for having sex with an underage girl.

Webster was convicted of four counts of unlawful sexual conduct with a minor, charges that carried a maximum prison sentence of 20 years.

The jury convicted Webster of having sex with the girl in the fall of 2009, something Webster admitted to police on a taped statement played to the jury. After his arrest, though, Webster insisted he remembered incorrectly and said he began having sex with the girl in 2010, when she was 16, Ohio's age of consent.

Webster signed a five-year, $11.3 million contract by the Bengals in 2004 when Coach Marvin Lewis compared him to perennial All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis.

Much of the sexual activity between Webster and the girl took place in and around the Symmes Township neighborhood where both lived.

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Saints Q&A At Minicamp: Jimmy Graham

New Orleans Saints TE Jimmy Graham
Media Availability Transcript
Tuesday, June 05, 2012

You put up huge numbers last year, what areas can you improve on?
“The little things, the things people don’t notice. I see an extra thirty receptions out there that I left (on the table). I see chances where I could have done a little bit more on some blocks, sprung a couple of running backs free for a couple more yards, just things like that. I’m a young player, and I’m young to the game, so every day is a learning experience for me.”

How much does it help having a full off-season?
“It has helped me a lot. I guess more or less where it’s helping me is the chance to watch film, the chance to watch all the plays from last year, all the catches, all the drops and all the missed opportunities. Really where I’ve focused is on the film-watching aspect in getting better at what I know and working on defenses and recognizing that a little bit faster.”

Knowing there is at least a year’s worth of film that other teams have on you now, do you feel like they’re going to try to defend you differently considering how productive you were?
“Maybe. It’s hard to defend any one person on our team because we are so dynamic and we have so many weapons, our biggest weapon being Drew Brees. It’s hard to really defend that.”

Everybody called you a sleeper last year, but this year the expectations are high and there will be more attention on you from the media, fans, etc. Have you asked anyone if it is going to be a different experience?
“I would say at the end of last year that teams played a little bit more detailed to me. I could tell that they were just paying attention to me more and playing different looks and I was still able to find some holes. Once again with this offense that we have, it’s hard to really stop one person because if you’re focusing on one person, (Marques) Colston is going to go out there or light it up…or (Darren) Sproles…or Devery (Henderson). We have so many weapons.”

David Thomas said he went to six different doctors, trying to make sure that he was alright to come back from a couple of concussions. What do you gain out of him deciding that he was still good to go and is now back in the locker room?
“His leadership. He is like an older brother to me. He’s been there since I didn’t even know what a 3-4 (defense) was. He’s helped me out tremendously, especially in the running game. That’s where he’s really taught me so much and to have him back means everything.”

Are you still confident that Drew (Brees) will be here by training camp?
“I’m pretty confident, at least I hope so. He’s our leader and we want him here. I can’t wait for him to get here.”

Does there come a point where you start getting worried about it?
“He’s the quarterback; you want him here. You want him on the field leading us. More than our quarterback he is our leader. We are working hard without him and are getting better without him, and right now preparing for him to get here.”

Do you talk to him daily or weekly?
“I talk to him a lot about everything but football. I talk to him about fishing, golf and flying. I know he has a lot on his mind and he’s going through a lot right now. I just tell him that we all love him here and we are all anticipating him coming back. I let him know that we are working just as hard while he’s not here, because we know that once he gets here it’s going to come quick.”

How was your off-season?
“It’s been pretty busy, with all the pilot stuff and with (television) shows. It’s been crazy. I still remain focused and wanting to get better because that’s why I live; to play football and get better every off-season.”

Which television shows were you a part of?
I was on Oprah, so that was pretty cool to meet her. She’s really nice and very inspiring, so to have that opportunity to meet with her and share my story was pretty incredible.”

Are these events things that you would say “I felt obligated to do this” or “These are good opportunities”?
“These are great opportunities for me. A chance to maybe touch a little kid and to inspire him to maybe become something or get through something is why I do it. To have a camp here and then to give the proceeds to Boys Town Louisiana and help those kids out that really need it means a lot to me.”

How many pilot hours do you have right now?
Too many, actually, I flew every day last week. It’s cool to be able to fly over the (Mercedes-Benz) Dome and being able to take friends, family, and teammates up and show them the city from a different aspect. That is pretty cool.”

Do your teammates trust you in the air? What teammate has given you the most trust?
“David (Thomas) has the most trust in me. (Jonathan) Vilma, if the Miami Heat win (tonight), he’s going to go with me (to a future playoff game). So the Heat better win tonight.”

Did you get your foundation up and running?
“Not yet, but I am steadily working on that. What I really want to do right now is focus on helping things in the community right now. If I have an event like I did with the football camp, the goal is to give the proceeds to someone in New Orleans. I want it to be very legitimate, I want it to be productive and it takes a long time to come up with all those things.”

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Jonathan Vilma getting healthy for Saints

SI.com's Peter King noted that Jonathan Vilma was on the field for a walkthrough before going back inside for rehab on his surgically repaired knee. Acting head coach Joe Vitt said everything he's hearing from the Saints training staff about LB Vilma's progression with his knee injury has been great. Vitt said Vilma has probably made his most significant leap in his rehab the past two weeks. Vilma rode the stationary bike for a while during Tuesday morning's practice and watched from the sidelines after that.

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Ravens Need Reed At Minicamp

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Expect limited returns from Hester

Devin Hester remains too dynamic and explosive to reach the point of no returns, but kickoffs might not be his forte in 2012.

Coach Lovie Smith mentioned the luxury of being able to relieve Hester from kickoff returns after the team signed veterans Eric Weems and Devin Thomas. The Bears also seem intent on implementing a "Hester package" on offense that could necessitate limiting Hester's special teams workload.

"I think every now and then, I'm going to do kickoffs," said Hester, who still is expected to handle most punt returns. "It will depend on how the game is going.

"If I'm involved in the offense the whole first and second quarters, maybe I'll tell them to cut back on the kickoff returns. If I'm not getting that many touches on offense, of course I'm going to want to get some more touches on kickoff returns. That's how I see things panning out."

Hester led the league in punt-return average last season at 16.2 yards but was 24th on kickoffs at 21.9. Thomas, who played for the Super Bowl champion Giants last season, ranked 14th at 24.3. Weems, formerly of the Falcons, finished 18th at 23.5.

"Eric is a Pro Bowl special teams guy," Hester said. "He has returned kicks. He has returned punts. When I watch (Thomas) return kickoffs in practice, he looks like he's really good at it. We have a lot of people who can do the same thing, so it's not all on one person's shoulders."

The Bears already have discussed using Weems as the primary kickoff returner, particularly with Johnny Knox (spinal fusion surgery) likely out of the mix. Weems has 113 career kickoff returns for 2,896 yards (25.6 yards per return) with a 102-yard touchdown and seven returns of 40-plus yards.

"It's a good thing between (Hester) and I," Weems said. "We're been splitting things so far in practice. Whichever way it is during the season, teams will have to pick their poison.

"Devin, he's a speed guy — quickness and speed. He likes to get around the edges and make people miss. I'm more of a hit-it returner. I just hit it hard."

The Bears have had similar contrasting styles in recent years with Hester returning kicks alongside speedsters Danieal Manning and Knox. In fact, the Bears limited Hester's returns to seven in 2009 when Knox (32) and Manning (28) handled the bulk of them. That season, Hester caught a career-high 57 passes for 757 yards and three touchdowns.

Hester has an NFL-record 17 return touchdowns in 92 games, 12 off punts. He averaged 35.6 yards on 12 kickoff returns in 2010, which provides a reason for the Bears to keep him in the mix.

But the new kickoff rules have taken some of the luster away from players such as Hester. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the percentage of touchbacks on kickoffs increased from 16.4 percent in 2010 to 43.5 percent last season under rules that stipulate kickoffs from the 35-yard line rather than the 30.

"You have to deal with it," Weems said of the rules. "(After a year,) it has no effect on me. Sometimes, you take your chances. Sometimes, you don't.''

Weems believes he will have the opportunity to gamble a little more with the Bears than he did with the Falcons.

"Dave Toub, he's an aggressive coach," Weems said of his special teams coordinator. "He takes chances. My cutoff in Atlanta was like 105 yards deep, depending on how I gathered momentum. With Toub? He really hasn't set a standard yet."

Hester raised the standard for returns a long time ago.

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Eagles glad to have a healthy Antonio Dixon

WHENEVER A PLAYER sits in the trainer’s room at Lincoln Financial Field while a game is in progress, he is in some sort of misery.

On Oct. 2, Antonio Dixon lived a special sort of misery as Frank Gore gashed his Eagles in a loss that cost them dearly.

One more win, and the Eagles occupy the playoff spot the Giants used to win the Super Bowl.

Of all the bad plays and the bad luck and the bad coaching that comprised the Failure of 2011, losing an undrafted run-stopper in Game 4 played as large a role as anything. Maybe a larger role than most.

This season, even with the addition of first-round tackle Fletcher Cox, Dixon, at 6-3 and upwards of 330 pounds, should play a larger role than ever.
Certainly, Dixon’s value should be better appreciated after what his absence meant last season.

"Dixon, with his size and explosiveness, he’s pretty unique. When he went down last year, we really missed that," said fellow tackle Cullen Jenkins. "All of us other tackles, we don’t have that size and the ability to just fire off the ball and just push guys around and collapse it. We missed that."

In Dixon’s absence, Jenkins, a free agent acquired to rush the passer, found himself thrust into more run-defense situations. The limitations of Trevor Laws and Mike Patterson were magnified. The Eagles had to re-sign Derek Landri, whom they cut out of training camp.

And, without Dixon for less than 30 minutes, they lost to the Niners.

After a harmless, 40-yard scoot on his first touch, Gore was limited to 19 yards on five touches until early in the third quarter. Subtract Gore’s first run and the Niners, as a team, gained 33 yards on 11 carries.

Seven of those 11 rushes were for 3 yards or less. Of those 19 yards, 15 were meaningless.

The Niners’ running attack was absent. Finally, the wide-nine defensive line scheme was working.

The Eagles led, 23-10.

Dixon tore his left triceps on the next drive.

Gore gained 68 yards, scored a touchdown and ran out the clock on his next nine carries.

Dixon could only watch.

"I saw him running all over the defense. I was going crazy in the back," Dixon said. "I couldn’t help my teammates. It was pretty hard to watch.

“The first two quarters we shut them down. Then I got hurt, and he gutted us."

It was no easier to watch 2 months later in Seattle, when Marshawn Lynch trampled them for 148 yards and two touchdowns, another deflating, costly loss. Maybe a worse loss, considering it dropped the Eagles to 4-8 and made their route to making the playoffs an indecipherable combination of unlikely events.

The loss in Seattle hurt, but the Seahawks and Lynch owned that game.

Against the Niners, the Eagles blew a 20-point lead, in the second half, at home.

"The Seattle game was hard to watch, too. Because I know I could’ve helped the run game," Dixon said. "But it was harder to watch San Francisco come back."

At the same time, it was a privilege for Dixon to be missed.

Dixon, 26, has overcome homelessness, a learning disability, a speech impediment and a weight problem. Then, he was undrafted. The Redskins signed him as a rookie free agent in 2009 and planned to stash him on the practice squad. That required Dixon to clear waivers, and the Eagles snared him.

Dixon played in 31 of 32 games in 2009 and 2010. Last season, he played ahead of Laws, a second-round pick whom the Eagles let go to St. Louis via free agency. He was a big reason the Eagles traded 2006 first-round pick Broderick Bunkley in 2011.

"Trevor and Bunkley, they’re my dogs … but it makes me proud that the Eagles wanted me," Dixon said.

They didn’t just want him. They needed him.

They need him now.

Dixon stayed in Philadelphia the entire offseason, fed at the Eagles’ strict training trough and supplemented his rehab routine with a rigorous workout regimen.

Dixon weighs 332 pounds, about the same as last year.

Only now, he can see his feet.

"He’s in the best shape he’s ever been in," said defensive coordinator Juan Castillo. "You can see the excitement in his face."

You could see the excitement on Castillo’s face, too.

He got his run-stopper back.

If only …

OK, Dixon finishing the game against the Niners does not guarantee a win.

In that same game, Alex Henery missed two field goals inside of 40 yards. Jeremy Maclin fumbled in Niners territory late in the fourth quarter. And, of course, Ronnie Brown turned the ball over at the goal line on a halfback option pass, the Eagles’ most absurd play-call of the season.

But a stop here, a tackle there … who knows?

Maybe the Giants aren’t smiling.

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Redskins being cautious with Hankerson

Leonard Hankerson has said that he is ready. Mike Shanahan has said that Hankerson is ready.

So where’s Hank?

He has been seen doing some work at OTA’s but it has consisted mostly of doing some conditioning and tossing a ball around off to the side. He has yet to step in with the full offense and catch some passes from Robert Griffin III. 

Hankerson has been limited during offseason activities as he is recovering from a hip injury that he suffered on Nov. 13 last year against the Dolphins. At first they tried to rehab the injury without surgery. However, in mid February it was determined that he was not making sufficient progress and the decision was made to conduct a procedure to repair the injury.

All reports have been positive since then. When asked about Hankerson’s after last Thursday’s OTA, Shanahan said, “The hip is healed. We’ve got to get him back into football shape but he’s working extremely hard.”

But he cautioned against Hankerson working too hard. “We don’t want to overdo it so we don’t set him back. But the hip is healed.”

That is the dilemma that the team faces with Hankerson. There are just six practices left in the offseason program, three OTA’s this week and next week’s three-day minicamp. He desperately needs the work, especially since the NFL lockout wiped out the offseason prior to his rookie year. 

But on the other hand, they really need him healthy when training camp starts on about July 26. Having Hankerson not fully participate in the remaining six practices would be a minus; if he practices, has a setback, and misses a good chunk of training camp, that would be a disaster.

The Redskins suffered a lot of injuries last year but the one to Hankerson may have been the worst. After getting off to a bumpy start with troubles hanging on to the ball in training camp, he was inactive for the first five games of the season. In the Miami game, he was having a breakout performance with eight receptions for 106 yards before getting injured. Hankerson missed six weeks of practice and six games worth of development. That is work that Hankerson, who has a lot of rough edges that need to be smoothed out, could have used.

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Nate Webster to be sentenced

CINCINNATI - A former Bengal will soon find out his punishment for having sex with a minor.

Nate Webster will be sentenced by a Hamilton County Judge Wednesday morning.

The former NFL linebacker is facing up to 20 years in prison for having sex with the teenage daughter of one of his former coaches.

In April, a jury found Webster guilty of four counts of unlawful sexual conduct with a minor.

Webster admitted to having sex with the teen, but said it happened after she turned 16, the legal age of consent in Ohio.

Before his trial started, the former NFL player turned down a plea deal that would have sent him to prison for four years.

Webster's sentencing is at 9 a.m. in a Hamilton County courtroom.

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Jon Beason looking to put Achilles injury behind him

Less than a year ago, Jon Beason parlayed a third-straight trip to the Pro Bowl into a five-year, $50 million contract extension. A torn Achilles and the Carolina Panthers use of a top-10 pick on a middle linebacker (Boston College's Luke Kuechly) have increased the pressure on Beason heading into the 2012 season.

Under Pressure: Jon Beason

1. When asked by ESPNU who he felt the safest player in 2012 NFL Draft was, Beason said Kuechly. Imagine Beason's surprise when the Panthers took his advice and used the ninth-overall pick on a player who led the nation in tackles the last two seasons after finishing second as a freshman in 2009. Kuechly's NFL career will begin at weak-side linebacker, but a potential long-term replace at the middle linebacker spot is now on the roster.

2. Beason's biggest challenge this season won't come from Kuechly, it will be his ability to come back from a torn Achilles' tendon that ended his 2011 season in Week 1. Beason is being held out of the OTAs to ensure that he's ready for the start of training camp, and he faces plenty of questions. Will he have the agility to turn and run down the seam with a tight end like Jimmy Graham? Will the speed and strength to go sideline-to-sideline chasing down backs and shedding blocks be there? Keep in mind, outside of Sione Fua and Terrell McClain, a pair of 2011 third-round picks who finished last season on injured reserve, there's not much talent or depth at the defensive tackle position on the Panthers' roster. That could put more of the run-stopping burden on Beason's shoulders.

3. An escalating base salary in 2013 could jeopardize Beason's roster spot. Beason is earning $1.25 million in base salary this season with a cap number of $5.5 million in the second year of a five-year, $50-million contract extension. Next season, Beason's salary jumps to $5.25 million and his cap number reaches $9.5 million. Of the $5.25 million in base salary, $3.75 million is guaranteed for injury only, meaning the Panthers could part ways with Beason if he's not the same Pro Bowl player he was when he signed that contract.

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Vince Wilfork realizes times have changed in Foxboro

FOXBORO — At the age of 30 and with eight seasons in New England behind him, Vince Wilfork realizes Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison are as much a part of Patriots history as Paul Revere, William Dawes and Samuel Prescott.

The years have brought change with them; change that hasn’t necessarily been for the better.

“It was a level that, you had guys that played this game for a long time, had been in this system for a long time, and they just knew how to play,” the veteran defensive lineman reflected, recalling the way things once were. “When you’re around something for so long you adapt, you can start doing some different things and move around differently because you know it so well.”

While the team performed well last year, the fact of the matter is, the defense didn’t.

In fact, it could be said the Patriots’ fifth Super Bowl berth in the past 11 seasons under Bill Belichick was accomplished in spite of the performance of a defense that ranked 31st in the NFL both overall and against the pass.

And in the end, for the second time in five Super Bowls, that defense proved incapable of mounting a last-minute stand that would have secured a championship against Eli Manning and the New York Giants.

“Being a young defense, I think with the lockout and all of that, I think we struggled at certain points with some of the things that we did,” said Wilfork. “Hopefully it can be better this year.

“I think the OTAs (organized team activities) are good for us and are definitely good for a younger team. We’ve got a younger defense and I’m not saying we’re too young, but at the same time it helps to be able to get together and get the little things out of the way that can make a big, big difference down in the season. I think some of those things we can get done now.

“We’re trying now. With OTAs we’re trying, and every day we put something different in and every day guys are coming in to work. That’s what it’s going to take. You have to strive to get better and that’s where I’m at right now – striving to get better and hopefully my teammates are doing the same thing.”

Wilfork was speaking following last Thursday’s OTA – the team’s sixth of 10 – on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium.

Those sessions wrap up on Friday of this week; next week (Tuesday-through-Thursday) the Patriots will hold a three-day minicamp, the last time they’ll get together until the start of training camp in late July.

Wilfork said he’s been pleased with what he’s seen to this point in an offseason in which the organization stressed defense, defense and more defense in the draft, dedicating the bulk of it to revamping that side of the ball, beginning with Chandler Jones (Syracuse defensive end) and Dont’a Hightower (Alabama linebacker) in the first round and continuing through the selection of Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard in the seventh.

“You know you can never doubt the capability of this organization and what they do,” said Wilfork, who earned a Pro Bowl berth in 2011, his fourth since the Patriots chose him in the opening round of the 2004 draft. “I’m just happy to be back.

“Whoever we have, we have a lot of faith in them, and if we didn’t they wouldn’t be here. Hopefully we can get this thing started fast. I’m excited about the upcoming season and I’m looking forward to camp, but when camp gets started I’ll be ready for it to end. It’s an exciting time when you can get back to doing something you love and something you’ve been doing for a long time. It’s always exciting.”

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Warren Sapp inspires Lions' plans for Ndamukong Suh

We're catching up with a heavy bundle of Detroit Lions news this Tuesday morning. While we're at it, let's check in with Ndamukong Suh.

Word out of Detroit is that Suh is being used creatively on the defensive line. After two seasons planted at the left tackle spot, Suh lined up on the right side during a portion of Monday's open practice session. Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham hinted we could see more of this during Suh's third campaign with the team.

"Warren (Sapp) will be happy; I'm going to move (Suh) all over the place now," Cunningham told the Detroit Free Press on Monday. "As a matter of fact, I showed him some of Warren's tape. Warren should be really happy."

Cunningham is harkening back to Sapp's Suh-centric riff during Super Bowl week. The NFL Network analyst jabbed the Lions for taking a predictable approach with their tackle, whose sack total dipped from 10 as a rookie to four last season.

"I like (Lions general manager) Martin Mayhew, so I'm like, 'Somebody want to put him on the right side a little more?' " Sapp said. "Jesus, you put the man in a position where he's here, and now people have wham blocks and all that because they know he's right there every time. When I was (alternating sides), you had to map this thing out. ... He's right there every time. I'm like, 'Come on, Gunther, stop it.' And then you put (Nick) Fairley behind him? Oh, so we don't get to see them side by side?"

Words come easy to Sapp, but he has a point here. Of course, four of Suh's 14 career sacks have come from somewhere other than left defensive tackle, so this isn't breaking news to Cunningham. Expect to see the Lions' best defender unleashed from a variety of locations in 2012, which lingers as ominous news for the quarterback species.

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Antrel Rolle says Big Blue is equipped for another title

Antrel Rolle said Osi Umenyiora has been “smiling like a kid in a candy shop” since he restructured his contract and made peace with the Giants. And he’s not the only one.

With Umenyiora back in the fold and seemingly happy, the defending Super Bowl champs are “stacked,” Rolle said, and primed for another championship run. They have what Rolle “truly” thinks is the best defensive line in football, and with Umenyiora back maybe one of the best overall defenses, too.

“We have an outstanding defensive line without Osi, but with Osi there it makes it that much better,” Rolle said on Tuesday night at Chelsea Piers where former Giants receiver David Tyree was holding a bowling event to benefit Children of the City. “I think we have a great team all the way around, not just the defensive line. We’re stacked right now at each and every position.

“As long as guys stay healthy it’s going to be a great run.”

Having the 30-year-old Umenyiora back will be a huge help to that run, and not just because of the 121/2 sacks he had in 13 games last season. The resolution of his years-long contract squabble with the Giants eliminates what might be the only offseason distraction the champs have had.

“We don’t have to answer questions about it,” Eli Manning said. “We don’t have to worry about it. We just have to worry about playing football.”

“Everybody knows this is a business in the NFL and Osi had to do whatever he had to do,” Rolle added. “Sometimes business can get a little sticky. We all know that.”

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Chris Perez converts 18th save

Chris Perez allowed a run but picked up his 18th save in Tuesday's win over the Tigers.

A Brennan Boesch sac fly followed a single and double in the ninth inning, but Perez then got Ramon Santiago to fly out to end it. Perez hasn't blown a save since his meltdown on Opening Day, converting 18 in a row to lead all of baseball.

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Ryan Braun 3rd in NL all-star voting in outfield

Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun, the leading vote-getter among all National League players for the 2011 All-Star Game, is third in the voting among NL outfielders in the first balloting released by MLB on Tuesday.

Los Angeles' Matt Kemp, the runner-up to Braun for 2011 NL MVP, is the leading vote-getter among all NL players with 1,952,910 vortes thus far. St. Louis' Carlos Beltran is next among NL outfielders with 1,212,030 votes, followed by Braun with 1,112,971 votes. The top three vote-getters will form the staring outfield for the NL.

Braun has been elected to four consecutive All-Star Games, a franchise record for the Brewers. But, after leading all vote-getters in 2011, some wondered how Braun would fare this year after his tumultuous off-season in which a positive drug test became public as well as his successful appeal of a pending 50-game suspension.

Braun has been booed on the road in several cities, most notably in Los Angeles on the last trip by Dodgers fans who thought Kemp should have been the MVP last year. Braun also heard considerable booing in Arizona at the start of that trip. The Brewers eliminated the Diamondbacks in the NLDS last fall, with Braun playing a prominent role.

Despite nagging injuries, Braun is off to a strong start this season, batting .308 with 14 home runs and 36 RBI. That performance, as well as his track record as one of the top hitters in the NL, is enough to put him third among NL outfielders in all-star voting in the initial results.

In NL balloting at other positions, Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy is fifth, as are third baseman Aramis Ramirez and shortstop Alex Gonzalez, who is out for the year with a knee injury. Second baseman Rickie Weeks is fourth in the balloting at his position.

The All-Star Game will be played on July 10 in Kansas City. Weekly updates in the balloting will be announced each Monday for the AL and each Tuesday for the NL throughout June.

Voting in the ballparks concludes on June 22 but fans can cast ballots on mlb.com and the club web sites until June. 28.

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Ray Lewis Intro Sparks Madden 13 At E3 2012

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Leonard Hankerson (hip surgery) fully cleared

Leonard Hankerson (hip surgery) confirmed that he's fully healthy and cleared to participate in all offseason activities.

Hankerson appeared in just four games as a rookie. We're expecting to get a better look at his progress off the hip surgery during the minicamp that starts June 11. ESPN's Dan Graziano projects the 2011 third-round pick as a starter opposite Pierre Garcon, but that's far from set in stone.

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Santana Moss: I've got to 'bring them something new'

Santana Moss knows that he can't keep doing what he was doing and survive with the Washington Redskins.

The Redskins' top two free agent acquisitions were receivers Peirre Garçon and Josh Morgan and they drafted three receivers, including Leonard Hankerson, in 2011. That is as clear a a sign as any that Mike Shanahan was not happy with the corps of wide receivers he inherited. The main man in that old group is Moss.

He turned 33 last week and he is coming off of his worst year since 2002. Moss consulted with strength and conditioning coach Ray Wright and decided to do something about it. 

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Darryl Sharpton (quadriceps) looks "real close,"

Texans ILB Darryl Sharpton (quadriceps) looks "real close," according to coach Gary Kubiak.

Sharpton has been running on the side as the Texans conduct their OTAs. The third-year run-stuffer should have no problem getting to 100 percent ahead of training camp.

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Leonard Hankerson Aware Of Redskins’ Expectations For Second Season

ASHBURN – Leonard Hankerson’s routine over the past six weeks hasn’t been too kind.

He’ll wake up early enough to be at the Washington Redskins’ facility by 7:30 a.m., first preparing for the next step in his rehabilitation from hip surgery before joining the rest of his teammates in meetings.

The receiver will stretch, run, lift weights – whatever is in his plan for that day. Then the hard part begins. As his teammates grab their helmets and run onto the field for drill work, Hankerson dons a ballcap and struts down the sidelines, often dropping to a knee to keep an eye on everything he can’t do.

“I mean, of course I miss being out there, you know?” Hankerson said Thursday, not long after walking off the fields at Redskins Park by himself. “That’s what I do. Of course I want to be out there with those guys, but obviously, I can’t. I’m just doing the things I can do right now in the rehab process.”

The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Hankerson didn’t have the most fluid rookie season, one in which he played only four games, and his first offseason has been quite the struggle as well.

After the coaches expressed concerns about his route-running and his knowledge of the playbook, Hankerson, a third-round draft pick out of Miami (Fla.) last April, didn’t make his debut until Week 7 at Carolina.

It was one worth forgetting. He took the field for just one play in the third quarter, and miscommunication between Hankerson and quarterback John Beck immediately led to a broken route, an interception and a spot back on the sidelines.

But the coaches stuck with Hankerson, and in his return to hometown, the receiver delivered. He caught a team-high eight passes for 106 yards in the 20-9 loss to the Miami Dolphins – a game that ended early for him when, while laying out to catch a pass, he landed awkwardly on his right hip and tore the labrum.

The Redskins put him on injured reserve the following day, bringing a premature close to his season. The injury hurt the sociable, fast-talking Hankerson so much that he politely declined all interview requests and avoided most chatter with reporters for the rest of the season.

“I was let down then,” Hankerson said. “But I’m getting there. I’m feeling good. I’m moving around pretty good.”

Hankerson originally believed that a few weeks of rest and rehabilitation would take care of the labrum, allowing him back on the field by the start of the Redskins’ voluntary offseason workouts in mid-April. Progress was slow, however, and in late February, he elected to undergo surgery – a move that would keep him out approximately four months.

The receiver said in late March he was aiming for a mid-June return to football activities. He didn’t want to comment on a timetable last week, but head coach Mike Shanahan said the hope was that Hankerson could begin doing positional drills with his teammates this week.

“We’ve got to get him back to football shape, but he’s working extremely hard,” Shanahan said. “He’s done all we’ve asked him to do … we just don’t want to put him in there real quick. He’ll definitely be ready for the season. We just don’t want to overdo it because it will set him back.”

The Redskins are counting heavily upon Hankerson being ready for the start of this season. After acquiring Pierre Garçon and Joshua Morgan via free agency in March, Shanahan professed the future of the receiving corps in Washington lies with the two newcomers and Hankerson. Garçon is expected to be the featured receiver; Morgan and Hankerson will battle for time as the split end, though either of the two could see time in the slot.

Hankerson understands the level of expectation such a role brings, and he appreciates the coaches’ belief in him. He is trying to remain cautious, though, because he knows that if he can’t return to the team fully healthy, expectations and projections mean nothing.

“You can’t really worry too much about what people are saying,” Hankerson said. “You’ve got to go in there and put in the work, and if you put in the work, there’s no doubt about it – you’re gonna show up. For me, I just worry about getting better each and every day, and just keep putting in work, because if I put in the work, it’s gonna show.”

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Eagles Will Take Long Look At Chase Ford

I had a good conversation the other day with offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg about the evolution of the tight end position and whether the Eagles might borrow some of what the Patriots did last year with their offense, making the tight ends the focal point of the passing game. I don't see that happening, but the Eagles do think they can create favorable matchups with Brent Celek and his backup, who is likely to be Clay Harbor or Brett Brackett. Rookie Chase Ford is going to get a long look in training camp, too. Said Mornhinweg: "If you've got a couple of really good ones, and we think we do here, you utilize them. It depends on your personnel and your opponents' personnel. We move ours around and we want them to be involved in our passing game and who can hold up on the line of scrimmage for in-line blocking. We've got a good group of athletes and all of them have a real good opportunity here. Brent is one of the best in the league in every phase and we have great competition behind him. This is Clay's first major offseason that he has had and he is coming on strong."

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Two proCanes Rated Top 20 AFC West O-Lineman

We are continuing our divisional position ranking with the offensive linemen. Overall, it is a young group with many players who have potential to move up in future years.

1. Eric Winston, T, Kansas City: Arguably the best right tackle in the NFL. The Chiefs scored major with this free-agent signing.

2. Ryan Clady, T, Denver: Clady’s sack and penalty numbers are up, but he is still an above-average player who should benefit from playing with Peyton Manning.

3. Nick Hardwick, C, San Diego: A strong, reliable player whom the Chargers absolutely had to re-sign.

4. Chris Kuper, G, Denver: Ask any scout about underrated players and Kuper is probably on every list.

5. Jared Veldheer, T, Oakland: The list is getting difficult here. I’m going with Veldheer as the second-best left tackle based on potential. It’s sky-high.

6. Jared Gaither, T, San Diego: If healthy, he can be dominant -- as he showed with the Chargers late last season.

7. Branden Albert, T, Kansas City: Solid, not spectacular, but you can do a lot worse and I wouldn’t be shocked if the Chiefs gave him an extension this season..

8. Stefen Wisniewski, C, Oakland: I like this second-year guard-turned-center a lot. A future star.

9. Mike Brisiel, G, Oakland: Tough, gritty player who is perfect for the zone-blocking offense.

10. Louis Vasquez, G, San Diego: A quiet, solid contributor.

11. Jeromey Clary, T, San Diego: A lot of Chargers fans don’t like him, but he gets the job done.

12. Jon Asamoah, G, Kansas City: This second-year starter looks solid.

13. Ryan Lilja, G, Kansas City: A tough vet who is probably entering his final season as a starter in Kansas City.

14. J.D. Walton, C, Denver: A tough, young starter who still needs to find consistency.

15. Zane Beadles, G, Denver: He has potential, but still needs to grow.

16. Orlando Franklin, T, Denver: He struggled some as a rookie, but there is big potential there.

17. Cooper Carlisle, G, Oakland: He keeps hanging around. The end may be near, but he can zone-block.

18. Rodney Hudson, C, Kansas City: He is poised to start for the first time, taking over for Casey Wiegmann. He could be very good.

19. Tyronne Green, G, San Diego: He is taking over for the great Kris Dielman, who retired. Green has been good as an injury replacement in the past.

20. Khalif Barnes, T, Oakland: He could lose his job to Joe Barksdale if he slips.

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Vince Wilfork Rooting For Celtics

The Wilfork family has been big fans of the Celtics for a long time, and Vince spoke last week about his admiration for the team, saying they have “a lot of heart,” and adding, “I’m a big fan and they have a bunch of fans in my household.” Because of that, don’t even think of intimating that he’s jumped on the Celtics bandwagon.

“Another win for my Celtics!! Nothing like being there to cheer them on!! [I] grew up a Celtics fan, dont get it twisted. [This] isn’t [some] bandwagon [expletive] they’ve always been my team,” he said Sunday night. “I went [to] college [in Miami] but the Celtics [are] my team.”

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Magic Benton Offering Youth strength and conditioning class

Youth strength and conditioning class in Naples, FL put on by Magic Benton and 24/7 Sports. 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays. Cost is $30. Contact: Brian Dodd 277-0700, brian247sports@yahoo.com.

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Zach Railey Voted Team Captain of US Olympic Sailing Team

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Jemile Weeks returns with one-hit, two-RBI effort

Jemile Weeks returned to action on Monday with a 1-for-5, two-RBI performance against the Rangers.

Weeks had been day-to-day with a left hip strain. Monday's effort marked his first RBI since May 1 -- a span of 26 games. The disappointing second baseman has picked it up a bit the past week but is still batting only .227 with seven RBI in 193 at-bats.

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2012 Ryan Braun vs. 2011 Ryan Braun

This could have been the most important weekend of Ryan Braun's entire baseball career.

In a different world, in a what-if parallel universe, this could have been the weekend (starting Thursday night, actually) when Braun finally was allowed to play baseball again, after the expiration of his 50-game suspension for You-Know-What.
Imagine that.

OK, now stop imagining that, because that isn't how it all worked out, of course. That isn't the world, that isn't the universe, that Braun has spent his 2012 season playing baseball in.

Instead, he's been out there from Day One -- Achilles tendons permitting. And it's been fascinating to watch him.

His suspension may have been overturned, his positive test erased from his permanent record. But if the reviews that come wafting down on him from the left-field seats mean anything, America doesn't believe his pleas of innocence.

I understand the reasons for that. I'm sure he does, too. But here's a question for all of us to ponder:

If he's so guilty, if the recipe for his MVP season was fueled by artificial ingredients, wouldn't we be seeing the evidence on the field, here in his post-positive-test life?

That would be a logical conclusion. Wouldn't it?

Well, it sure is interesting, then, that the Braun of 2012 has been a virtually identical player to the Braun of 2011. Take a look at his first 49 games in each of the last two seasons:

First 49 games:

If there's a different player in there this year than last, I haven't detected it. And I'm not alone.

"I haven't seen anything about this guy change," one NL scout said. "I don't see any difference in his swing. I don't see any difference in the effort in his swing. I don't see any difference in his speed. I don't see any difference in his gait. I don't see any difference in his size. I saw him as a 20-year-old, as a 22-year-old and now. And I don't see anything different."

Now I know what lots of you are thinking: He's taking something undetectable.

OK, maybe he is. But it sure was detectable last October, right? So did he take something undetectable all of last season, then switch to something more detectable (reportedly, a synthetic testosterone) in the postseason? You've got me.

The point of this is, none of us have any way of knowing all the details of Braun's case. We know he's been screaming, from the beginning, that he's innocent. We know a bunch of his friends have said stuff to the effect that "If you knew the real story, you'd believe him."

But we also know the powers that be at Major League Baseball believe none of it, that they fired their longtime arbitrator, Shyam Das, over his ruling on this affair, and that they're infuriated that Braun has been allowed to play baseball these last two months.

So you're free to think whatever you want to think about Ryan Braun. This is America. And that's the American way.

But whatever happened or didn't happen last year after his test came back positive, the facts of 2012 are there for all of us to see. And those facts say this is exactly the same player now as the guy we were watching before that test.

And I'm betting that's a development most people never saw coming.

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Prospect of the Day: Yasmani Grandal

The San Diego Padres promoted catching prospect Yasmani Grandal to the majors this past weekend. A former college star at the University of Miami, it took Grandal less than two years to reach the Show.

Grandal was born in Havana, Cuba, but immigrated to the United States at age 11 and became a citizen when he was in high school. A top prospect for the 2007 draft, he fell to the 27th round due to his bonus demands and strong college commitment. He took over as the semi-regular catcher for the University of Miami Hurricanes as a freshman in 2008, hitting .234/.358/.452 and showing good defensive skills. He improved as a full time starter as a sophomore in '09, hitting .299/.414/.599, then made huge strides as a junior in '10, batting .401/.528/.721 with 15 homers, 57 walks, and 35 strikeouts in 222 at-bats. This solidified his status as the best catching prospect in the draft.

The Reds drafted him 12th-overall, signing him to a $3,200,000 bonus. He opened 2011 with Bakersfield in the California League, hitting .296/.410/.510 with 10 homers and 41 walks in 206 at-bats, 56 games. Promoted to Double-A Carolina, he remained hot with a .301/.360/.474 mark in 45 games. A late four-game trial in Triple-A resulted in a 6-for-12 (.500) line with five walks and two doubles.

The Reds committed themselves to Devin Mesoraco as their Catcher of the Future, making Grandal (somewhat) expendable. He was traded to the Padres this past winter as part of the package for Mat Latos. He was off to a good start for Triple-A Tucson, hitting .317/.418/.500 with 21 walks and 27 strikeouts in 120 at-bats before his promotion.

Overall, in 147 career minor league games, Grandal has hit .307/.405/.490 with 42 doubles, 18 homers, 84 walks, and 128 strikeouts in 619 plate appearances.

Grandal is a 6-2, 210 pound switch-hitter, born November 8, 1988. He's a very solid hitter, with good power and excellent strike zone judgment. He isn't likely to hit .300 at the major league level, but he should produce above-average numbers in the power and OBP departments. He's had few problems with professional pitching, maintaining his production at each level. His bat speed isn't superb, but his refined approach to hitting helps him adjust.

Owner of a solid defensive reputation in college, he had a few problems last year, giving up 19 passed balls and committing 13 errors in 90 games behind the plate. He has more than enough mobility and has strong leadership skills, and his reliability should improve with more experience. His arm is average but his release can be a little slow; he caught 34% of runners last year and 24% so far in 2012. Although not a spectacular defender at this point, he will certainly stick at catcher and basically just needs more experience ironing out his receiving.

Overall, Grandal is a very impressive prospect, projecting as a regular major league catcher with power, strong OBP skills, and solid defense.

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Jason Hagerty Paces Missions

Catchers Ali Solis and Jason Hagerty were a combined 9-for-11 with three RBI and five runs scored Sunday as Double-A San Antonio scored a 16-2 victory at Arkansas.

Solis (.308) was 5-for-6 with two RBI and three runs scored. Hagerty, who was the Missions designated hitter Sunday, was 4-for-5 with a double, two runs scored and a RBI.

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Ryan Braun is hurting right now

Ryan Braun returned to the Brewers’ lineup last night against the Pirates after sitting out Thursday’s game with tightness in his right Achilles tendon, but he’s still hurting.

Braun aggravated his Achilles and strained his right hip after after legging out a hit and stealing second base in the sixth inning. He stayed in the game at first, but was eventually replaced by Norichika Aoki in left field in the eighth inning.

According to the Associated Press, Braun acknowledged that he’s risking further injury by attempting to stay in the lineup, but he also made it pretty clear that he has no plans to take a break.

“The danger in trying to play through an injury constantly is it’s easy to re-irritate it,” Braun said. “Your body also compensates so it’s easy to hurt something else. I don’t think it’s too bad, but it doesn’t feel too good right now.”

“Pretty much any injury you have during the year doesn’t go away when you play every day,” Braun said. “The only way to get healthy is to take time off and it’s not something I’m really interested in doing.”

Braun went 1-for-3 last night and is hitting .310/.394/.603 with 14 homers, 36 RBI, 11 stolen bases and a .998 OPS over 49 games this season. While he hasn’t skipped a beat amid the controversy of his overturned PED suspension, the Brewers will enter play this evening 6 1/2 games behind the first-place Reds in the NL Central at 23-29.

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Details of Lamar Miller's Contract Revealed

The Miami Dolphins have signed fourth-round University of Miami running back Lamar Miller to a four-year, $2.58 million contract.

The deal includes base salaries of $390,000, $480,000, $570,000 and $660,000.

Miller rushed for 1,918 career yards for the Hurricanes.

The Dolphins traded up to acquire the former Miami standout, parting with a pair of sixth-round draft selections.

The Dolphins have three draft picks who have yet to sign their rookie deals: first-round quarterback Ryan Tannehill (Texas A&M), third-round defensive end Oliver Vernon (Miami) and third-round tight end Michael Egnew (Missouri).

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Olivier Vernon Highlights vs FSU

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Devin Hester Says He May 'Never Be A No. 1 Receiver'

For the past handful of years, Devin Hester has carried a burden all his own. When Brandon Marshall became a Bear, the biggest part of that burden was lifted.

It was the “curse” of the No. 1 receiver, the fuzzy, loosely defined identifier that fans and media have tried to fit Hester with since he and the Bears agreed in 2008 to a contract extension that contained escalators that could have made the last two years of the deal worth $10 million per, based on hitting numbers befitting a No. 1 receiver.

That didn’t happen. With Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, it probably won’t. And Marshall’s prediction that Hester will have an All-Pro season shortly won't come true.

And that is fine with Hester. More than fine, in fact.

“I can just sit back and play now,” Hester told CSNChicago.com. “Everybody wanted me to be the No. 1 receiver. I might never be a No. 1 receiver. But I’ll be Devin Hester. That’s it. That’s my mindset.”

Hester wanted a shot at being an elite receiver and was willing to bet on himself with the escalators if he was as good as he, and the Bears hoped.

He worked through injuries in 2011 that contributed to his totaling just 26 receptions, one fewer than undrafted rookie free agent Dane Sanzenbacher and only slightly better than the 20 he had in 2007, the year before he became a full-time receiver.

He’s heard the criticisms: “You get listed as that No. 1 receiver but you’re not making 1,000-yard seasons, then red flags get thrown,” Hester said. “But I’m capable of doing that.”

The irony is that the single biggest potential drain on his potential opportunities – Marshall – is also the biggest believer in Hester outside of receivers coach Darryl Drake.

Marshall has not caught fewer than 81 passes in any of the last five seasons. Hester has never caught more than his 57 two years ago. Marshall has looked past the Hester numbers and it has meant a great deal to Hester.

“When guys come in, like a Pro Bowl receiver [Marshall], and see that you didn’t have stats, some people would say, ‘he’s not really that good,’” Hester said, shaking his head.

“But to come out and work with me every day and see what I’m capable of, and be high on me -- that speaks for itself.”

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Kellen Winslow was traded as a result of an "accumulation of things"

Greg Schiano spoke to Dan Pompei of the National Football Post, who used the conversation as a basis for his NFP Sunday Blitz column this week. Any Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan should really read that column, as a lot of interesting things were said by Schiano. Mostly, Schiano talked about the culture he wanted to establish at One Buc Place. One of the consequences of that culture change appears to be that Kellen Winslow Jr. no longer fit the team. Here's what Schiano had to say:

Winslow was not a Buccaneer man, so he was traded to Seattle for a seventh round pick that could become a sixth rounder. Schiano explains. "I thought he complied well. The time he was here, he did everything I asked him. He did it the way we asked him to."

But Winslow was not working out with the team for much of the offseason. "Some of it his voluntary," Schiano said. "I can't make them be here for every part. Would I have liked him here? Sure. We had 87 guys here. But that wasn't the only reason we decided to do what we did. We just didn't think it was the best fit for us. It was a bunch of things, an accumulation of things. Some of it is projecting, how will this project moving forward."
While Schiano was not trying to make an example out of Winslow, he is trying to establish a culture. As a result, he isn't in a position to make exceptions for players like Winslow.

"The key I learned early is when you are establishing a culture you really have to make sure it's non-negotiable," he said. "After you have established the culture and built a program, then a program can accept one or two guys who maybe aren't seeing things the exact same way. Usually that strong culture either transforms that person or spits him out. We're nowhere near that. We're just establishing who we are, what we want to become."

The Bucs have made it clear that this culture is indeed non-negotiable. They said goodbye to two talented, key players this offseason in Tanard Jackson and Kellen Winslow Jr. Both players were let go in part because of their declining production, but also because the team did not appreciate the way they were working out. Winslow preferred to work out on his own, while Tanard Jackson was rehabbing, but not in the way the team wanted - supposedly.

Will there be more victims of this culture change? I would guess so, but some of those victims may not come immediately. The Bucs can't completely overhaul the team in one offseason, although they sure are trying. It's clear, though, that Schiano wants players that buy into his way of doing things, and those that don't need not apply.

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Jonathan Vilma's lawyer blasts Roger Goodell over 'ledger', Vilma laughs it off

The lawyer for suspended New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma hit back at NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on Saturday, accusing Goodell of being "misguided and irresponsible," in a statement obtained by NFL.com's Steve Wyche.

The statement comes a day after the existence of an alleged "ledger" was leaked to the media as key evidence in the team's "bounty" scheme that gave cash rewards to defensive players who injured opponents.

"Commissioner Goodell accuses Saints players of putting money on the head of specific opposing players -- the so-called ledger, as described by the anonymous sources, identifies no players, either Saints or opposing players," Peter Ginsberg said in a statement.

The ledger is to have kept track of the money earned by Saints defenders for types of hits -- dubbed "cart-offs" and "whacks" -- that injured opponents, according to a report by Yahoo! Sports. A hit that knocked an opponent out of the game was reportedly worth $1,000.

Ginsberg alleges that Goodell was told the ledger wasn't used for a bounty program but for rewarding clean play with small sums of money, saying the "'whacks' and 'cart-offs,' though regrettably named, were descriptions of good, clean, legal plays, and that any dirty or penalized play resulted in fines to players, not awards."

Vilma, who has been suspended for the entire season by Goodell for his role in the pay-to-injure program, has sued the commissioner for defamation.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said he had no comment on Ginsberg's statement.

"The facts are plain and simple," Ginsberg said. "During the three seasons in question, Jonathan Vilma was one of the least penalized players not only on the Saints but in the NFL. There is not one instance in which Jonathan Vilma set out to injure a player or gave any incentive to another player to injure an opposing player."

Vilma laughed off the ledger as evidence of a bounty program on his Twitter account Sunday by saying: “I've been asking the nfl for evidence for 2mos and got nothin but somehow a ledger gets "leaked"...and the leak was wrong! lol I love it”

Three other current players have been suspended by the league for their role in the bounty program, which is said to have run from 2009 to 2011 by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Saints defensive lineman Will Smith has been suspended four games, while Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita was suspended three games and Green Bay Packers defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove suspended eight games. Fujita and Hargrove were members of the Saints at points of program's life span.

All four players have appealed their suspensions, and the NFL Players Association has filed two separate grievances questioning Goodell's authority to rule on such matters.

Saints head coach Sean Payton was suspended for a year, general manager Mickey Loomis eight games and assistant head coach Joe Vitt six games. Williams, the architect of the program, has been suspended indefinitely.

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Vince Wilfork takes turn in Tom Brady’s receiving corps

We know Vince Wilfork has pretty good hands. We know he’s pretty athletic. We know the receiving corps is pretty crowded. Might there still be room for a massive 350-pound wideout who can really bring some thunder it down the sideline?

”I’ve been running a couple of routes and look good out there,” Wilfork half-joked yesterday. ”Tom (Brady) gave me a couple of balls, (I) looked pretty good out there.”

That last part is no surprise. Wilfork looked pretty good picking off a pair of balls last season. Did he at least catch the balls Brady threw to him yesterday?”Absolutely I caught them,” Wilfork said. ”My drops are looking pretty good back in the backend, so I’m getting back to my old self. A couple more vertical routes by me and I think I’ll be ready to go.”

And what did the quarterback think of Big Vince running routes?

”He had two interceptions last year. That was close to leading our team. He’s got to start working on his run after catch,” Brady cracked. ”Maybe we can use him in goal-line situations like the Fridge. He’s a load, I’ll tell you that. He’s a hell of a player for this team.”

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A whirlwind weekend in majors for Yasmani Grandal

For the record, it is now on the record. For the rest of his life, Yasmani Grandal can tell people he was a big-leaguer.

“Not everyone gets to have a major league at bat or get two innings as a player,” said Grandal before Sunday’s game between the Padres. “Even if I never make it up here again, I can say that.”

Zero doubt exists in anyone’s mind that Grandal will be back behind the plate with the Padres again in the months to come -- if not the days to come, considering the shuttle going on between San Diego and Tucson. But his first 48 hours in The Show were over, and just as suddenly as the catcher had been summoned from Tucson on Friday, Grandal was packed and ready for his return to Triple-A.

The Padres made yet another flurry of roster maneuvers Sunday, reinstating veteran outfielder/first baseman Mark Kotsay from the 15-day disabled list and infielder Logan Forsythe from the 60-day DL. Along with the placement of infielder Andy Parrino (wrist sprain) on the 15-day DL, Grandal was off to Colorado Springs to join the Tucson Padres.

For all the injuries and young players called up as replacements, Grandal is the first Padres position player this season to make his major league debut in 2012. Withheld from Friday’s game, he entered play via double-switch in the eighth inning Saturday, Grandal made a fairly impressive defensive play, running down a pitch that skittered off him and throwing out batter Willie Bloomquist with a bullet throw to first. In his one at-bat, Grandal lined out to left.

“I actually was pretty locked down, more than I thought I’d be,” said Grandal. “I thought I was going to be super-nervous and shaking, but once I stepped into the box, I was nice and calm. That’s a good sign.”

Grandal, 23, is one of the prospects the Padres are most interested in getting to the major leagues on a permanent basis. Obtained with first baseman Yonder Alonso, starting pitcher Edinson Volquez and minor-league reliever Brad Boxberger, Grandal’s batting .317 with an OPS of .921 with Tucson.

“I’m a little disappointed to be going down, but excited to get back up,” he said. “I had a great time while it lasted.”

Forsythe, who made his major league debut with the Padres last year and had three different big-league stints, was sidelined in spring training with his second career fracture of a sesamoid bone in his foot. Kotsay also began the season on the DL with a calf issue, returned for 34 games and batted .294 before returning to the DL with a lower-back problem.

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Jemile Weeks diagnosed with hip strain, day-to-day

Jemile Weeks has been diagnosed with a mild hip strain and is listed as day-to-day.

Weeks stated that he wasn't worried about the injury, and even hinted that he may be available to play on Sunday. This doesn't look like it's something that will keep him out long-term, but monitor the situation before setting your lineups for next week.

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Jon Jay halts rehab workouts for injured shoulder

NEW YORK -- Jon Jay, who has been hampered by a right shoulder injury for six weeks now, will be shut down for seven to 10 days in an attempt to reduce the bothersome inflammation.

Jay had the shoulder re-examined on Thursday and, according to general manager John Mozeliak, there were no new findings. That's good news in that it confirmed that Jay does not have any structural damage in the shoulder.

The inflammation, as manager Mike Matheny explained, is around the area of the shoulder where Jay received a recent cortisone shot.
Though Jay avoided a DL stint initially after jamming his right shoulder into the outfield wall on April 19, the discomfort grew to the point that by mid-May, the Cardinals had to shut him down.

Jay traveled to the Cardinals' Jupiter, Fla., complex earlier this week in hopes that, while there, he'd be able to increase his level of activity and work his way off the DL. However, with the discomfort not waning, Jay opted to get his shoulder looked at once again to make sure there were no other undetected issues.

Mozeliak said that the Cardinals are still discussing what the next step will be for Jay following this period of rest. Jay is returning to St. Louis, where he'll resume his rehab work when cleared.

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Ryan Braun returns as pinch-hitter

Ryan Braun returned to action as a pinch-hitter on Sunday, flying out in his only at-bat of a 6-5 loss to the Astros.
Between a sore right hip and tightness in his right Achilles tendon, Braun sat out most of the weekend to recuperate. He will get another 48 hours to heal before Tuesday night's match-up against the Cubs.

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Marlins' decision time nears for Gaby Sanchez

MIAMI -- The 10-day waiting period to call Gaby Sanchez back up is Wednesday.

The Marlins optioned the first baseman to Triple-A New Orleans on May 20. By league rule, barring replacing someone who was placed on the disabled list, any player optioned must stay at least 10 days in the Minor Leagues before being brought back up.

"Needless to say, we're keeping our eye on him," Marlins president of baseball operations Larry Beinfest said. "We're tracking him every day and talking to our people. We want him to be confident and comfortable."

An All-Star in 2011, Sanchez has struggled at the big league level, batting .197 with one home run and 11 RBIs in 36 games.

Since being optioned, he's played in nine games with the Zephyrs, batting .300 (9-for-30) with a home run and four RBIs. Sanchez had an eight-game hitting streak going before he went 0-for-4 on Monday.

"Gaby has always hit," Beinfest said. "He hit pretty much immediately when he came to the Major Leagues. For him not to hit is a little bit off the tracks, and it's not something we anticipated. Let's get him really feeling good about himself and comfortable."

Logan Morrison has been playing first base since Sanchez was sent down.

"Logan is doing a fine job at first, and his bat looks like it's waking up a little bit," Beinfest said. "We'll just take it as a positive and do what we've got to do."

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Ten questions with Yasmani Grandal

Q: How did you find out you were coming to the big leagues?
A: There were a couple of weird things going on. I went in for my workout and my strength and conditioning guy didn’t want to do too much with me, which I found a little weird. And then we were playing the game, we were losing 5-4 in the ninth and I usually come in when there’s a righty and they didn’t give me a call. So that was kind of weird, too. And then I heard the news right after that.

Q: What’s that feeling like? I’m sure you’ve been dreaming of it since you were a kid.
A: This is one of those things where as a kid, you say you want to play in the major leagues but you kind of don’t know how hard it is to make it up here and once you’re that close, and you’re playing in Triple-A and you’re kind of thinking about it every day, like: “Hey, I’m doing good, maybe today is the day” and for me, I didn’t think about it too much. I really worried about what I had to do and that was putting up numbers in the minor leagues in order to make it here.

Q: Who did you call first?
A: My mom was the first call, and then after that my agent. They were both sleeping. They didn’t know what happened. After that I just started calling everyone else in the family. My mom was surprised, she was shocked. When I told her she kind of had to ask me the same question two or three times because she didn’t think it was real.

Q: For you, walking into the clubhouse and seeing your jersey there — did it kind of sink in?
A: Not really. Not when I got here. It kind of sunk in when I was out in the outfield stretching right before the game. My heart started racing a little bit. But it hasn’t really sunk in yet. I know I’m in the Major Leagues but until I’m out on the field, it’s not going to hit me.

Q: You grew up in Cuba and came to the United States when you were 10. Was it tough to learn the language and to acclimate?
A: I didn’t have any trouble. Baseball helped me out a lot. I was always playing on travel ball teams and all the guys spoke English. My mom helped me out a lot, too. She knew how to speak English. I got the language probably a year after I was here. Not to the best of my ability, but I was understanding and trying to connect with the other guys. TV definitely helped me a lot.

Q: What was baseball like in Cuba, and was it big for you there?
A: Defnitely. Baseball in Cuba is just like baseball in any Hispanic country. You use baseball in order to get out of there, in order to make a living.

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Chris Perez walks fine line with outgoing personality

CLEVELAND -- The colorful closer and the legendary leadoff man crossed paths outside the Cleveland clubhouse the other day.

It was not what you'd call a cordial encounter.

Chris Perez, you see, had recently uttered some choice words about an Indians fan base that he deemed to be too fickle and too negative for his liking. And Kenny Lofton, member in good standing of the Indians' alumni base, had gone on a local radio show and offered a few choice words of his own about Perez, essentially saying, "He just doesn't get it."

So when Lofton passed Perez and extended his hand and a greeting, Perez walked right past him without uttering a word.

Asked about it after the fact, Perez said, in effect, "If you're going to say that stuff about me on air, don't try to be nice to me in person."

And Lofton, unexpectant of such an encounter, could only look back in amazement at the brash young man who just blew him off.

"Really?" said Lofton, his mouth agape. "Wow."

Perez has been getting that kind of reaction a lot lately.

We're talking here about the first player fined for violating MLB's social media policy, after writing to the Royals, "You hit us, we hit you. Period." A player whose fist pumps and primal screams have offended the opposition. A player whose public sentiments about getting booed by his home fans and the small attendance tallies at Progressive Field became the biggest Tribe talking point in recent memory. And a player who, just this week, made a WWE hand gesture -- "You can't see me" was, apparently, the message behind the wave of the hand over the face -- after striking out Royals outfielder Jarrod Dyson.

All this boldness, all this brazenness, all this brutal honesty has made Perez -- who goes by the nickname "Pure Rage" -- something of a polarizing figure.

In a sport that values, more than most, respect of the game and of the opponent, and in an era in which clichéd quotes and media training sessions are the status quo, Perez is an outlaw.

And his "antics," as one opponent called them, have caused some consternation in opposing clubhouses and, yes, even his own. One member of the Indians organization quipped that Perez's comments should all come with the television-ready caveat that "the opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the club."

Perez's take? This is a game. Let's have some fun with it.

"I'm doing something that I've wanted to do since I was 4 years old," said Perez, who has converted 17 straight save opportunities since blowing one on Opening Day. "And I'm doing it all right, right now. So I'm going to enjoy it."

Suffice to say, his critics aren't enjoying it at all.

"That's just a sorry guy looking to be loved," Royals catcher Brayan Peña told the Kansas City Star this week. "Nobody pays any attention to him, so he has to do stuff like that. You don't see guys who people know, guys like Mariano Rivera, do that, do you?"

Well, no, you don't. But such statements don't rattle Perez in the least.

The notion of the quirky, cocksure closer has become something of a cliché in and of itself, yet lately the 26-year-old Perez has been taking that posture to another plane. And if recent fan reaction is any indication, it's actually won him some followers.

Two weeks ago, in the midst of a rant about getting booed by his home crowd for putting two runners on base in a save against the Mariners, Perez called the fact that the then-first-place Indians ranked last in the Majors in attendance "a slap in the face" and "embarrassing."
Honesty, indeed.

"That's just how I am," Perez said. "I learned that from my dad. My dad's a small business owner. When he did a good job, he expected to get paid and for the other person to honor the contract. When that didn't happen, he stood up for his rights. I was in his office a lot of times when he chewed people out. He didn't back down. He stood up for himself."

What did Perez's version of standing up for himself and his team earn him?

His next trip to the mound was met with a standing ovation.

"It seems to have worked," he said. "I've heard from a lot of people who said, 'We needed to be called out for being so-called great fans.' Because that's what we always hear is, 'Oh, in the '90s, we sold out [455 straight games].' Well, we haven't seen it. We don't believe it until we see it. Good or bad, people are responding to what I said."

And Perez has backed up his words by offering up three pairs of tickets to every home game to fans through his Twitter account.

But one thing he said in that rant was that Indians fans don't have it nearly as bad as fans of the Royals and Pirates, who "haven't won anything in 20 years." Dyson heard that remark and told his friend Tony Sipp, an Indians reliever, that he wasn't happy about it. Sipp relayed the message to Perez, who did the hand gesture when he put Dyson away in Monday's game and performed an exaggerated celebration when he completed the save.

"Different players have different ways that they act," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "Mike Maddux used to say to our pitchers in Milwaukee, 'You never want to give the opposition any more reason to beat you.' But some players have a lot of energy, and they display it."

How long Perez can effectively back up all this energy remains to be seen. His string of saves is indeed impressive, and he's a big reason the Indians, currently besieged by injuries in their lineup, are four games over .500.

But within the Tribe clubhouse, there is some concern that Perez has earned the Indians more enemies than they're comfortable with.

"There is a line," Perez allowed. "I don't think I've crossed it yet. Some people may disagree with me, but I'm just having fun out there."

Just don't ask him to pal around with Kenny Lofton.

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