23 February 2014

PLEASE Help JoJo Nicolas' Family


Canesfam, JoJo Nicolas’ family need OUR help. They have many expenses with the loss of proCane S JoJo Nicolas including funeral expenses along with needing to raise and support his 5-month old son. Any amount helps and is greatly appreciated to help provide for a family in mourning. PLEASE click here and donate.

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RIP To Too Many Canes


RIP to way too many Canes. []_[] are gone but not forgotten. RIP Al Blades, Marlin Barnes, Bryan Pata, Chris Campbell, JoJo Nicolas, Sean Taylor, Jerome Brown, and we know this isn’t even the full list.

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Is Rob Chudzinski the Next Bruce Arians?

INDIANAPOLIS – Chuck Pagano had a similar feeling two years ago.

He had just been named head coach of the Indianapolis Colts and when trying to form a coaching staff, his first call went to a man without a job.

Bruce Arians was a tremendous football mind and a friend of Pagano’s. The cohesion between the two men was seamless during their one season together in Indianapolis.

So when another coach who fit the description of Arians was unemployed earlier this offseason, Pagano was ready to pounce.

The Colts hired former Cleveland Browns head coach Rob Chudzinski on Feb. 8 as a special assistant to Pagano.

“Chud’s going to be a great resource,” Pagano said at the Combine.

“He’ll be heavily involved with a lot of things that I do on a daily basis and be a great resource for me. He’s a brilliant guy, a really bright guy, a really smart guy, a really good football coach and he’s well versed in a lot of different areas.”

Pagnao and Chud’s history dates back to 1986 when the current Colts head coach was a graduate assistant at the University of Miami.

Chud was a tight end for the Hurricanes that year along with current Colts tight ends coach Alfredo Roberts.

Once Chud’s playing career came to an end in Miami, he joined the Hurricanes coaching staff with Pagano.

In 2004, the two were reunited in Cleveland as position coaches for the Browns.

“Chud has a longstanding relationship with our head coach that goes a long ways back to college,” Ryan Grigson said at the Combine.

“This business is about relationships. It’s about trust. He’s part of our family now. His role will continue to evolve. He’s a great football mind to bounce things off of.”

With the addition of Chud to the Colts staff, that brings the total to three coaches in Indianapolis that have been offensive coordinators in the NFL.

While Chud has spent his entire coaching career on the offensive side of the ball, Pagano reiterated that will not be the only phase in which he will help the Colts.

“I’m not going to pigeon hole Chud and say he’s an offensive coach, defensive coach, special teams," the Colts head coach said. "He’s going to be a great resource not only for our offensive staff but for our defensive staff, Ryan, myself, game day management. There’s really nothing I won’t throw at Chud in any area of our program that’s going to make us better.

“We had an opportunity to add another piece to the puzzle which makes our team better, gets us one step closer to our ultimate goal, and that’s hoisting a Lombardi and hopefully participating in Super Bowl XLIX in Phoenix.”

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Shane Larkin heads to D-League

Shane Larkin, Jae Crowder and Bernard James have been assigned to the Texas Legends for Thursday's game.
They're not a significant part of the Mavs' rotation at the moment and the quick trip to the D-League will at least keep them game-ready. All three guys should be recalled on Friday and this doesn't have fantasy implications.

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Ryan Braun makes statement with HR in first spring at-bat

MILWAUKEE - Ryan Braun sent a statement to critics by homering in his first at-bat of spring training Thursday.

Braun hit a two-run homer off Oakland A's starter Tommy Milone in the first inning, helping propel the Brewers to an 11-3 win in their Cactus Leagu opener.

Braun received some boos in his second at-bat. Juan Francisco homered twice for the Brewers.

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Jemile Weeks shows off his skills for Showalter

SARASOTA, Fla. – Very quickly, Jemile Weeks has given Buck Showalter some evidence that he could be a real find for the Orioles.

Baltimore groaned in early December when Weeks was the player the Orioles obtained from Oakland for Jim Johnson. A few weeks later, minor league catcher David Freitas was added to the trade.

At the time, Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette called it a reallocation of resources.

After the Orioles attempt to sign Grant Balfour collapsed, it took two months before they were able to sign another major free agent, and now they’ve signed three: Suk-min Yoon, Ubaldo Jimenez and Nelson Cruz.

“Everybody would love to have Jimmy back, but it also allowed us to sign Jimenez, sign Cruz, do some other things and hope we can offset for his loss,” Showalter said.

Weeks made two nice plays in Wednesday’s intrasquad and on Thursday, singled and walked.

“Jemile has a chance to impact us as a second baseman this year,” Showalter said.

“He’s fit right in. He’s a plus runner. A lot of people forget that this guy hit .300 in the big leagues for a season. Not many guys out there on both sides of the ball that have done that,” Showalter said.

“You know it’s there, and it also gives us flexibility with him having an option. We’re not going to use that against him.”

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JoJo Nicolas Dies Two Days After tractor-trailer crash

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. -- Former University of Miami football player JoJo Nicolas has died a day after getting into a car crash on a Miami Beach highway.

Nicolas' brother, Abner Davis, said Nicolas died about 5 p.m. Wednesday at Jackson Memorial Hospital.

Nicolas was driving home from Miami Beach when his car struck the back of a tractor trailer early Tuesday morning. He was taken to the hospital in critical condition. The school announced his death Wednesday evening.

"The entire University of Miami family mourns the loss of JoJo Nicolas," Miami athletic director Blake James said in a statement. "JoJo was a valued member of our community, our school and our football program, and his loss is devastating to everyone he touched. On behalf of the university, I send our condolences and thoughts and prayers to JoJo's family, friends and teammates. He will forever be a part of The U."

Nicolas played for the Hurricanes from 2007-11. As a starter his senior season, he had 66 tackles and two interceptions and was the recipient of the team's Melching Leadership Award.

"The University of Miami community has suffered a deep loss with the passing of JoJo Nicolas," coach Al Golden said in a statement. "For all of us who were fortunate to know JoJo -- to coach him, teach him, play alongside him or simply to befriend him--we will forever carry his memory with us. Our prayers go out to his family and his loved ones, and he will always be a cherished member of our family."

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Stephen Morris earns $10,000 for 40-yard dash time at NFL combine

INDIANAPOLIS — The University of Miami’s Stephen Morris isn’t considered a top-tier quarterback prospect for May’s NFL draft, but he’s raking in some cash in the meantime.

Morris came away from the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis with $10,000 after clocking the fastest time in the 40-yard dash among quarterbacks wearing Adidas cleats.

Adidas pledged $100,000 to the top overall participant in the 40 and also $10,000 to the top player in each position group. The only caveat: You had to wear Adidas.

Morris actually finished second among quarterbacks in the 40 at 4.63 seconds. Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas ran a 4.61, but he wasn’t wearing Adidas. Oregon State receiver Brandin Cooks took home the $100,000 prize with a 4.33.

Even second place was a strong showing for Morris, who is no lock to be selected in the May 8-10 draft and struggled in last month’s Senior Bowl.

“I’ll just show my athleticism for one, show my knowledge for the game, show how experienced I am and show that I know a lot of football that can translate to the field,” Morris said when asked how he could impress NFL scouts at the combine despite concerns over his height and accuracy.

While it’s uncertain whether Morris, who was measured at 6 feet 2 at the combine, will even land on an NFL roster next season, UCF quarterback Blake Bortles lived up his pre-combine hype.

Bortles, whom analysts say has developed into a top 10 overall pick and could go as high as No. 1 to Houston, is part of the “Big Three” quarterbacks group with Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel and Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater. Bortles was the only one of the three to throw in front of the scouts at the combine.

Teams were already impressed by his size (6-5, 232 pounds), but he showed his athleticism by finishing third among quarterbacks in the broad jump and fourth in the vertical jump.

In the throwing drills, Bortles showed “above-average” arm strength and “flashed superb anticipation on intermediate routes,” according to NFL Media’s Bucky Brooks.

Most top quarterbacks believe throwing at the combine has more potential to hurt their draft status that help it. But it might have paid off for Bortles.

“I believe that I can compete with any guy here, and that’s why I’m doing everything I’m doing,” Bortles said.

Bortles and Morris were the only two state quarterbacks at the combine, but there were plenty of other state players.

None might have helped his draft stock more than FSU safety Terrence Brooks, who could have a chance to climb as high as the second round.

Brooks has average size (5-11, 198 pounds), but he clocked the fastest time among safeties in the 40-yard dash at 4.42 seconds. He was also tied for first in the vertical jump (38 inches).

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Jimmy Graham demanding 12 million per season?

Fox Football Daily is suggesting Jimmy Graham is demanding $12 million per year salary.

@LarryHolder: RT @FFD: Jimmy Graham and the Saints remain several million dollars per season apart according to @MikeGarafolo.

@LarryHolder: RT @FFD: According to Mike's sources, the Saints are willing to make Graham the highest paid TE in the NFL. Graham wants roughly $12mil per yr.

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Ryan Braun should play in opener

Phoenix – Finally, Cactus League play is upon us.

Three games kick off the slate in the Phoenix area today, with the Milwaukee Brewers opening up tomorrow afternoon against the Oakland A's at Phoenix Municipal Stadium.

"It's quick this year, so it's not like in the past where you have eight full days with your squad and you're looking to get it going," manager Ron Roenicke said. "We're trying to make sure that we're getting everything in before we start these games."

Roenicke has his lineups mapped out for each of the Brewers' two games Thursday and Friday, but will already have to do some shuffling around on Saturday with split-squad games in Maryvale against the Los Angeles Dodgers and at the Arizona Diamondbacks.

"We have some guys on the minor-league side we're going to borrow," he said.

Roenicke did say he expects Ryan Braun to play tomorrow, "unless he tells me he's not ready," and said Matt Garza will make his first start for the Brewers on Sunday against the Colorado Rockies at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick.

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Brian Barton touts positive attitude in book

A healthy state of mind has the power to alter any situation and change one’s life.

So says Brian Barton, the former Major League baseball player and outfielder for the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs. In 2012, Barton published his book, “Mindset: Awareness and Action.” The Los Angeles native had seen a lot during the course of his life and wanted to encourage people to make the most of their lives. Barton will speak Friday evening at the annual fundraiser for The Jude House, a Charles County-based addiction treatment center that sees patients from across the region.

Friday will not mark Barton’s first time working with The Jude House. He previously has spoken at one of their group sessions.

“I know that when you’re dealing with substance abuse ... it’s important to send a message of empowerment,” Barton said. “We have to be a vessel to help build people up.”

Barton said he plans to address “the importance of having a strong foundation” when he speaks Friday. Barton used hard hats as a metaphor, saying they’re worn on construction sites by people who are both building and destroying, and one must be mindful of the person wearing the hat.

“What’s important is we surround ourselves with those builders and not destroyers,” Barton said. “It’s the perspective you have when faced with these problems. I’m looking to send the message of a different way to see things. Instead of falling into the routine of life, you need to build one. It’s very easy to get sucked in. ... Sometimes you have to go against the current to actualize your dreams.”

Jude House board President Debbie Prohaska said Barton had approached her about speaking to the group at the house. After that talk, Prohaska said she knew they had to bring Barton back to speak again.

“It was so emotional, and the message he sent was so powerful,” Prohaska said. “He can reach these people, we feel. They can be the best. They just have to take the time to be the best. ... This is a steppingstone for them. [It’s about] teaching them that they have to make the right choices, and when they end their 120 days with us and get back in the world, the drug dealers, the liquor stores will all still be there. Nothing has changed there. [Barton] is a great speaker with a great story to share.”

Prohaska said this is the group’s annual fundraiser, and they are hoping to raise money to enhance the facility’s growing needs.

If you go

The Jude House will hold its annual fundraiser 7-10 p.m. Feb. 28 at the Jaycees center in Waldorf. Blue Crabs baseball player Brian Barton will speak. Tickets are $30. Call 301-932-0700 or email jhibusofc@comcast.net.

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JoJo Nicolas seriously injured in MacArthur Causeway crash

Just days away from his 25th birthday, JoJo Nicolas tweeted that he was starting his celebration at a South Beach night club.

“Kickin off the bday turn up week at Mansion with my brotha,” wrote the former University of Miami football player Monday night. He later posted a picture from another bar on Instagram.

But what began as a celebration for his March 3 birthday ended with a devastating crash early Tuesday morning as Nicolas’ gray Lexus sedan crashed into the back of an 18-wheeler as he headed out of Miami Beach.

The horrific crash left the sedan wedged under the truck, paralyzed traffic for hours and left Nicolas clinging to life Tuesday night.

Meanwhile, Miami Beach detectives looked into possible causes including speed, alcohol and texting, according to according to Miami Beach spokeswoman Vivian Hernandez.

“During this extremely difficult time for JoJo and his family, our Miami family extends our prayers to them and our hope for his recovery,” said Canes football coach Al Golden, who along with family and friends stayed with him at Jackson Memorial Hospital’s Ryder Trauma Center.

“He is a big part of our U family and all of us are pulling for him.”

When word spread that Nicolas, a former Canes defensive back who was on the team from 2007-11, was injured, prayer messages started popping up on social media sites.

“Prayers up for Jojo Nicolas involved in a serious car accident !!!!!!” one person tweeted.

DeMarcus Van Dyke, who played with Nicolas at UM and recently signed with the Kansas City Chiefs, said that it “was a sad situation.”

“I saw him last month,” said Van Dyke, who shared an apartment for two years with Nicolas and said he might have been working at a post office most recently. “I think he was still training and trying to get back into football.”

Several R.I.P. posts spread on different sites throughout the day until his family took to his Instagram account, saying “Jojo is not dead.” As of Tuesday night, Hernandez said there was no change in his condition.

Nicolas, who was featured in a 2011 Miami Herald story after he lost his baby son, is an alumni of Homestead High. In the story, Nicolas opened up about how hard it was to lose his baby, who was born prematurely, while keeping his commitment to the team.

According to Van Dyke he has since had another son.

In May 2012, he signed with the New York Giants as a rookie free agent, but was dropped in Aug. 28. He described himself on Twitter as “Chasing my NFL Dream.”

On Tuesday, police got the first call of a crash on the MacArthur Causeway near Alton Road just after 5 a.m., Hernandez said.

She said it appears the refrigerated food distribution truck was at a red light, about to go, when the Lexus crashed into its rear.

Rescue workers pried off the roof of the sedan to free Nicolas. He was rushed to the hospital in critical condition. All lanes of traffic heading west had to be shut down for the investigation, but were reopened just after 11 a.m.

Traffic heading eastbound moved slowly, with people sticking phones out of their windows to snap pictures and capture video.

Giants safety Antrel Rolle wished his former teammate a speedy recovery on Twitter.

“Everyone please send your prayers to JoJo,” he said.

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Warren Sapp on the size of today's players: "There is something in the steroids."

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Meet the free agents: LB Rocky McIntosh

Free agent to be: Rocky McIntosh

Position: Linebacker

Age: 31

Years in the league: 8

What he made last season: $555,000 (cap value); $840,000 (cash value and base salary).

What he did last season: McIntosh had the least productive season of his career, but that also came because he saw far fewer snaps than any other time in the past five seasons. McIntosh had only 38 defensive snaps as the team’s fourth linebacker. He had six defensive tackles, but had a knack for making plays in goal-line or fourth-down situations. He was also a key special-teams piece, making nine special-teams tackles. Of those nine tackles, seven came in two games -- Week 3 against his former team, Washington, and Week 4 against Chicago.

His potential market value: Someone will end up signing him. McIntosh said during the season he hopes to continue playing and although he barely played for the Lions, there is likely another team out there that will give him a shot to at least get into camp and try to earn a spot on their roster. At the very least, he could be a good special-teams player for one of the NFL’s other 31 teams.

Will he fit the Lions still: No. General manager Martin Mayhew said Friday the team informed Rocky McIntosh he would not be returning to the team in 2014. Now sometimes situations change and there is always the possibility if McIntosh is out there and the team has needs later on, they'd revisit it. But right now, McIntosh’s time with Detroit has come to an end after one season with the club.

What happens: McIntosh plays somewhere in 2014, although it might be in a very limited role. He is still a smart, instinctual player who can be a good mentor on a team with a lot of young, talented linebackers. The value of McIntosh to teams would likely be more in a mentoring role than anything else, as both his snaps and production have decreased ever since 2010, when he played a career-high 888 snaps and made a career-high 110 tackles. But barring the unforeseen to many, including Mayhew, McIntosh won’t be with the Lions.

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Saints, Jimmy Graham remain 'several millions apart' in contract talks

The New Orleans Saints and tight end Jimmy Graham appear to have made little to no headway on contract talks with the franchise tag deadline looming March 3.

The two sides are several millions of dollars apart in contract talks, according to Fox Sports. The Saints are willing to make Graham the highest paid tight end in the NFL, but Graham is looking for roughly $12 million per season, according to the report.

This tussle should come as no surprise and coincides with the argument of whether Graham should be paid like a tight end or a wide receiver. NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune reported several months ago the Saints slid over multiple contract offers to Graham to no avail.

Saints general manager Mickey Loomis has been staunch in his stance that the team will place the franchise tag on Graham as a tight end if there's no long-term deal by the deadline. NFL Network reported Graham's camp, led by agent Jimmy Sexton, will file an immediate grievance claiming Graham should be tagged as a wide receiver based on the percentage of snaps Graham has received in a wide receiver role.

The franchise tag figures for a tight end and wide receiver aren't concrete yet as the NFL has yet to set the 2014 salary cap, but the difference between being dubbed a tight end or wide receiver could vary by about $4.5 million in favor of a wide receiver.

Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski set the tight-end barometer when he signed a six-year extension two years ago with the deal reportedly maxing out at $54 million.

"That's not for me to decide," Graham said nearly two weeks ago when asked if he should be considered a wide receiver or a tight end. "I'm going to do, and I'm going to play, whatever I'm asked to do. It's that simple."

When asked where he stood on his contract talks with the Saints, Graham said at the time, "For me, I'm just standing. I take everyday one day at a time. I'm just going to wait and see what happens because that's where it's at."

From the looks of negotiations, the Saints and the 2013 NFL touchdown reception leader aren't standing too close together with less than a week left before the tag deadline.

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Phillip Buchanon Developing A Board Game

Longtime NFL cornerback Phillip Buchanon is creating a board game to teach money management and other life skills to kids. Arizona Cardinals long snapper Mike Leach and his wife, Julie, are developing a product to help parents toilet train their toddlers. Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Plaxico Burress has introduced a line of colorful, luxury socks.

The budding entrepreneurs just need a little coaching — and not the sort involving the shriek of whistles — to assist them with such things as marketing, branding and contracts.

This Sunday, the group will join a dozen other current and former National Football League players — including Ravens' wide receiver Torrey Smith — at a four-day conference in Baltimore on getting started in consumer products sales. While the NFL has held "boot camps" on broadcasting and other topics, this is its first focusing on product pitches, and it's the first hosted by Baltimore.

The conference isn't designed only for players — such as Burress —who have already started businesses. The Burress collection includes fancy socks with names like "The Bold Stripe," "the Yacht Club" and the "the Paisley Park," each selling for $24 a pair.

"I'm hoping he brings socks for all of the (conference) participants," said former defensive back Troy Vincent, an executive with NFL Player Engagement, which provides off-the-field resources — such as the seminars — for current and former players.

For years, NFL players were often targeted for ill-advised investments. "It was good money going to bad because they were not informed," Vincent said "We lacked job readiness because we lacked the hands-on experience."

During the conference, the players will split into four teams and prepare and present a product pitch to judges, including Vincent and Henry C. Boyd III, associate chair of the marketing department at Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business.

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Are New York Giants Making Mistake by not Signing Jon Beason Prior to Start of Free Agency?

The New York Giants have made it well known that they want to bring back middle linebacker Jon Beason and have began discussions on a long-term deal to keep him with the team well beyond into the future.

However with that said, Giants general manager Jerry Reese told the media this past week while at the NFL Scouting Combine that he will let Beason test the free agent market along with defensive end Justin Tuck and wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, which signals that any deal won't be made before the start of free agency on March 11.

While Reese did say that the roster is going to have a different feel and look to it in 2014, especially after finishing 7-9 and missing the playoffs for the second straight season since they won Super Bowl XLVI, the fact of the matter is Beason is a very key free agent and maybe even more so than some of the others that the Giants have like Nicks, Tuck and even Linval Joseph too.

If in fact Reese decides not to sign anyone to a deal before March 11, he is risking losing players to other teams on that date and while he can afford to lose Nicks and maybe even lose Tuck, losing Beason is something their defense simply can not have happen for 2014, especially given how valuable the middle linebacker's presence was once he arrived in New Jersey in early October.

Does anyone remember how the Giants defense played before Beason showed up? Let us remind you, five straight games of allowing 30-plus points and an 0-5 start to the season in which the defense was ranked 31st in the league. To sum that up in so few words: pathetic. The Giants defense was pathetic before Beason got dealt the Friday before Week 5 against the Philadelphia Eagles.

When the Giants inserted Beason full-time into the lineup in Week 6 against the Chicago Bears, the team saw the change, especially in the second half of the game when they shut out the Bears and were able to make a game of it. For the first time since Antonio Pierce, the Giants had a true play-making linebacker in the middle who could go sideline to sideline and make plays all over the field, something the Giants sorely lacked for years, and with a healthy Beason, the Giants had one of the better middle linebackers in the sport on their team.

By losing Beason, the Giants risk going back to what they were before Beason's arrival; bad. Sure, Tuck's departure would be sad, but the team also drafted Damontre Moore for a reason, and the same thing with losing Joseph, because they did the same thing with Johnathan Hankins. But there is no sure-fire starter on the team to take Beason's spot if he were to leave in free agency; Mark Herzlich is still there, but the team quickly learned that he was better suited as a backup and for special team duties following Dan Connor landing on season-ending injured reserve in Week 1.

Beason is the key to making this defense what it was; which was at times dominant and showed shades of being elite. Having a healthy Jason Pierre-Paul back and disrupting the quarterback will make it better, as will having Stevie Brown back in the secondary intercepting passes if he returns, but having that play-maker patrolling the middle of the field is what ultimately made the difference last year. The players immediately looked to Beason as a leader from the get-go and they had every reason to.

Ultimately, letting Beason go in free agency would likely be viewed as a very poor decision.

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Greg Olsen continues work on 'The Heartest Yard'

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Panthers’ tight end Greg Olsen is clearly a hands-on dad.

At the NBC Charlotte studios to appear on Charlotte Today, his whole family joined him. For much of our interview he juggled holding two of his three kids at a time. Wife Kara stood with him, holding their daughter Talbot, while Greg’s mom looked-on, clearly proud.

As an outside observer, it's hard to decide what seems tougher: what the Panthers tight end manages on the field, or the wrangling he and wife Kara do off the field.

“This seems like a handful,” NBC Charlotte commented.

“Oh, it is,” Greg responded, “But it’s fun. We wouldn't trade it for anything. We've had some rough moments over the last couple of years, but the good has definitely outweighed the difficult.”

The Olsen’s oldest, Tate, is 2-and-a-half. Twins Talbot and T.J. turned 1 in October.

Dad says TJ is doing remarkably well, but it’s clear the parents are still holding their breath. Their youngest son has already undergone two surgeries and needs a third because of the heart defect he was born with.

“We're very fortunate; he's had a couple ups and downs. We have about a year until his next scheduled surgery, so we're just really trying to enjoy the family and just get there,” Greg added.

Enjoying this family is easy.

“Hey Tate when we go and throw pennies in the wishing well, what do we wish for?” Greg asks his son. 

The 2-and-a-half-year old tells his dad, “TJ's heart.”

“And has it worked so far?”


The couple is so grateful for TJ’s health that they are working to help other families. They created The Heartest Yard, a non-profit that provides in-home care and other services for babies with congenital heart defects

The Queen City has rallied around the cause and their family.

“Everyone in Charlotte-- the support we’ve gotten from the fans and the local community has been topnotch,” Kara says.

It's been a trying year, but also a fun one topped by a winning Panthers season that saw Greg growing a grizzly playoffs beard. One wife Kara didn’t entirely love.

“I was not a fan, but you gotta take one for the team,” she says.

Greg adds, “She’s a really great team player after all these years. She gets the greater good.”

It's clearly all about teamwork for the Olsens, on, but especially off, the field. And there is really one main focus.

“That’s all that matters at the end of the day is trying to keep them happy and healthy, keep things relatively normal,” Kara says, smiling.

There are several upcoming events for The Heartest Yard – including a chance to meet Greg in person.

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New Royal Danny Valencia maintains he’s versatile at plate

SURPRISE, Ariz. — Danny Valencia loves hitting left-handed pitching. He hates the suggestion that’s all he’s about as a ballplayer.

“I didn’t get through the minor leagues hitting only left-handed pitching,” Valencia said.

That’s precisely the attitude Royals manager Ned Yost desires, and Valencia will get his opportunities to contribute beyond what has become his greatest strength in four major-league seasons.

Valencia, acquired from Baltimore in exchange for outfielder David Lough, owns a career .329 batting average against southpaws, with a .367 on-base percentage and .513 slugging percentage.

Those numbers against righties: .229/.269/.360.

But Valencia, who played third base in the majors and first base in college, will get his shot in camp.

“Every time we played against him, he opened our eyes a little bit,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “We’ve got to see him in game situations. His numbers suggest he’s a lot better against left-handers, but it’s too early to make a judgment.

“You don’t want to pigeonhole a guy in your mind that he’s only a platoon player. Players continue to develop and get better. If I pigeonholed a player, it takes away from his ability to be everything he can be. You have to let it play out, see exactly what he is.”

Last year in Baltimore, Valencia appeared in 52 games, mostly as a designated hitter. He played six games at third. In 2011, he was the Twins’ regular third basemen, playing 147 games there in his first full major-league season.

Valencia did a short stint with the Red Sox before landing in Baltimore last year, but the Orioles were set on the corners with Manny Machado at third and Chris Davis at first.

“It was going to be tough getting on the field last year,” Valencia said.

So it appears to be this year with Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer on the corners for the Royals. When the Royals made the deal, the idea was for Valencia to be available to spell both. Designated hitter is less of an option with Billy Butler in that role.

Yost said Valencia could play some left field, even second base at spring training.

“We’re going to move guys around,” Yost said.

The second-base hint may be telling. If the Royals keep 12 pitchers and five outfielders, with Butler as the DH and two catchers, they’re likely down to one reserve infielder slot and will need versatility.

Whatever happens, Valencia is up to the challenge. He experienced disappointment coming out of high school in Boca Raton, Fla. Valencia dreamed of playing for Miami, but he wasn’t recruited by the Hurricanes.

He attended North Carolina-Greensboro and made the most of it with a conference player-of-the-year performance. That got Miami’s attention, and Valencia transferred and joined the national power, playing first with Ryan Braun at third. The team reached the College World Series in 2006.

Valencia, a 19th-round selection by the Twins in 2006, climbed the pro ranks quickly, making All-Star teams in the Appalachian League, Midwest League and Florida State League in his first three years. He made his major-league debut in 2010 and singled off the Mariners’ Felix Hernandez in his first at-bat.

Valencia’s first home run later that year was more memorable, a grand slam off the Royals’ Zack Greinke.

A right-hander.

“I take great pride in hitting,” Valencia said. “Against righties and lefties.”

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Pirates hope Gaby Sanchez is answer at 1B

BRADENTON, Fla. — The longer the Pittsburgh Pirates go without finding a new first baseman, the closer Gaby Sanchez gets to claiming the job.

Sanchez, though, does not want to get the spot by default. He’d prefer to earn it.

General manager Neal Huntington tried in December to lure free agent James Loney, but he wound up re-signing with the Tampa Bay Rays. Kendrys Morales is still available, but the Pirates will sign him only at a bargain rate. Ike Davis, Mitch Moreland, Justin Smoak and Adam Lind have been mentioned as trade possibilities, but so far nothing has materialized.

“We’ve not made a move because we’ve got some comfort with Gaby and our internal options,” Huntington said. “But we are always looking for ways to improve our team.”

The Pirates opened spring training camp with three candidates to be their opening day first baseman: Sanchez, Andrew Lambo and Chris McGuiness.

Lambo hit 32 home runs last season in the minors, but has made just 41 career starts at first base. He’s getting a crash course in the position this spring.

“Andrew does a couple things like an outfielder in the infield,” infield coach Nick Leyva said. “We’ve got to break those bad habits.”

McGuiness was acquired at the end of December in a small trade with the Texas Rangers. He has extensive experience at first base, but also is with his fourth organization in a six-year span. McGuiness has appeared in only 10 major league games.

That leaves Sanchez.

Three years ago, Sanchez hit 19 home runs and was an All-Star with the Miami Marlins. But he fell out of favor when his production lagged. Sanchez spent part of 2012 at Triple-A before being traded to the Pirates.

Last year, the 30-year-old Sanchez platooned with Garrett Jones. In 136 games, Sanchez batted .233 with seven homers and 36 RBIs. Among first basemen with at least 200 plate appearances, Sanchez ranked ninth with a .778 on-base plus slugging percentage.

Huntington believes Sanchez has more talent than his stats have shown so far. So does Sanchez.

“I’ve always felt I could take first base and be perfect there,” Sanchez said. “It’s out of my hands. All I can do is work hard, train hard and show, ‘Hey, I am here. I definitely can help the team.’ If we get somebody else, I’ll help out however I can.”

After the Pirates were eliminated in the NL Division Series, Sanchez took off 10 days and relaxed with his family in Miami. On day 11, he began intense, daily workouts with a personal trainer.

“It was just me and one other guy for a good month before other guys started trickling in,” Sanchez said. “It was good. I wanted to get after it, get started.”

Last year’s media guide listed Sanchez’s weight as 230 pounds, but he looked and moved like he was at least 10 pounds heavier. This spring, Sanchez checked into camp at 235 pounds after losing a lot of flab and gaining muscle.

Sanchez’s trimmer body is the product of a stepped-up conditioning program. Many of the exercises were targeted for baseball-related skills — short sprints, ladder drills and workouts in a sand pit.

“It was designed to give me more explosive first steps,” Sanchez said. “That plays a big part at first base. I’m not a typical first baseman who plays closer to the line; I play off the line as much as I possibly can. I need to be quick enough to get back to the base. Maybe now I can get another step off than I could last year. Maybe I can take away one or two hits each week.”

Sanchez will make $2.3 million this season and has one year of arbitration eligibility left. This could be his final chance to show the Pirates he deserves a bigger, longer contract.

“Guys get to the point where they recognize there’s a big opportunity for them,” Huntington said. “Gaby’s got the first opportunity in camp to become a regular first baseman again.”

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Warren Sapp’s Reaction To Jadeveon Clowney’s 40-Yard Dash


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Will Seantrel Henderson's Admission of Marijuana Use Hurt His Draft Stock?

The issue of drug use is becoming more complicated in light of states like Colorado and Washington legalizing marijuana and others considering or already legalizing medical marijuana.

So will it hurt former University of Miami offensive lineman Seantrel Henderson now that he's acknowledged his college suspensions were related to marijuana use? Perhaps.

"I will say this, there has been a tendency in the public mind to look upon marijuana more leniently. I'm not sure that's true of clubs," said Polian, now an ESPN analyst. "My experience with people is that the performance of those who use marijuana on a regular basis, as reported on verified official tests, has not been good. In fact, it's been abysmal. So I haven't bought into the fact that it's harmless."

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Sam Shields, Packers talk deal

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Discussions between the Green Bay Packers and the agent for cornerback Sam Shields heated up over the weekend at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.

Drew Rosenhaus, who represents Shields, met face-to-face with the Packers with the hope the sides could work out a deal before Shields became a free agent on March 11, according to a league source.

No deal was completed, but the source described the negotiations as "ongoing." The sides are expected to be in regular communication over the next several weeks.

The 26-year-old Shields, who played last season under a restricted free-agent tender of $2.023 million, is coming off his best season. He tied his career high with four interceptions in 14 games, including a game-changing pick in the fourth quarter of a Week 15 win over the Dallas Cowboys.

Last week at the combine, Packers general manager Ted Thompson would not say whether the team would use the franchise tag on Shields if a deal couldn't be reached.

The deadline for teams to do so is March 3. The franchise tag for a cornerback is expected to be around $11 million this season.

"I think Sam has been a good player for us, and he does a good job," Thompson said last week. "And he's one of the fellas we'd like to have back."

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Jimmy Graham debate tough to predict

METAIRIE, La. -- We’re now one week away from the deadline for NFL teams to place the franchise tag on players. So sometime between now and March 3, the great debate over whether the New Orleans Saints' Jimmy Graham should be considered a tight end or wide receiver will officially kick off.

I checked in recently with NFL business analyst Andrew Brandt -- a former executive with the Green Bay Packers and a former agent -- to see if he had any inkling how that debate might play out. Like most everyone else on the subject, Brandt said it’s too hard to predict what an arbitrator might rule.

“It’s new to me, too,” said Brandt, who pointed out that his former team had a similar case after he left with tight end Jermichael Finley in 2012 -- and they agreed to a meet-in-the-middle compromise before their debate reached an arbitrator.

Brandt said he could understand the argument for calling Graham a receiver by strictly reading the language of the collective bargaining agreement, which says the franchise tag designation is based on the position “at which the Franchise Player participated in the most plays during the prior League Year.” Graham lined up 33 percent of the time against the line last year, 45 percent of the time in the slot and 22 percent of the time out wide.

But Brandt said he also believes the Saints have a strong argument that Graham's versatile role matches the modern job description of a tight end.

“It’s more about the definition of the tight end in 2013 than where he lines up on every play,” Brandt said. “So that’s gonna be interesting.”

If Graham is considered a tight end, the Saints can maintain his rights by offering him a one-year franchise-tag salary that is projected to be around $6.8 million this year. However, Graham’s camp is expected to file a grievance through the NFL Players Association, asking a third-party arbitrator to rule that he should be considered a wide receiver instead. That would require a one-year franchise-tag salary of around $11.6 million.

That's a significant difference. But Brandt said the bigger issue is how the franchise tag will affect the negotiations on a long-term contract.

“Listen, the way I see this whole thing is the tag number is a temporary dispute. The real issue here is the long-term deal,” Brandt said. “And when you negotiate a long-term deal, like any negotiation, you come up with comparables. To me the bigger issue here is not the tag, but when they are negotiating, are they using (the contracts of tight ends) Vernon Davis and Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Gates? Or are they using (receivers) like Larry Fitzgerald and Percy Harvin? That’s the question I have. I think the tag issue is kind of a red herring issue.”

Gronkowski is the highest-paid tight end in NFL history, with an average salary of $9 million per year -- ahead of guys like Jason Witten, Davis and Gates, who earn a little more than $7 million per year. Conversely, the NFL’s four highest-paid receivers (including Fitzgerald and Harvin) earn at least $12 million per year.

Brandt said a favorable ruling on the franchise tag would certainly give one side a great deal of leverage in the long-term negotiations.

Either way, though, Brandt believes the franchise tag itself is a great leverage tool for all NFL teams.

“I think the franchise tag, even at the high level, is an incredible management weapon,” Brandt said. “It takes your best free agent off the market. And you get to June or July and guys looking at a one-year deal or whatever you want to offer long term. People look at the franchise tag as just about holding a guy for a year. I think the bigger issue is giving you leverage in negotiations.”

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League friends, strangers miffed over Browns’ firing of coach Rob Chudzinski

INDIANAPOLIS: Former Browns coach Rob Chudzinski was chatting in the lobby bar at the J.W. Marriott hotel Saturday night, when a man he had never met approached.

The man shook Chudzinski’s hand, told him how unfairly he thought he had been treated, wished him well and offered his business card.

“That was another one,” Chudzinski said, flashing the card before he tucked it in his pocket.

Since Wednesday at the NFL Scouting Combine, the supporter’s reaction has been a common theme. Many who know Chudzinski, worked with him, played for him or played for the Browns believe he got a raw deal when he was fired Dec. 29 after less than 12 months on the job.

Former Browns secondary coach Chuck Pagano, the Indianapolis Colts coach who recently hired Chudzinski as his special assistant, couldn’t get the words out fast enough when encountered crossing the street after having dinner with Chudzinski on Thursday. Pagano, who has known Chudzinski since 1986 at the University of Miami, had just coerced a local cab driver to give Chudzinski a free ride to his car on the other side of Lucas Oil Stadium.

Former Browns tight end Steve Heiden, who played for Chudzinski in Cleveland in 2004 and in 2007-08, was another who immediately brought it up. Heiden is beginning his second season as the Arizona Cardinals assistant special teams/assistant tight ends coach.

Chudzinski was sitting at a table with former Browns offensive coordinator and receivers coach Terry Robiskie, who worked with Chudzinski in Cleveland in 2004 and has been a friend and mentor since.

Members of the national media, many still marveling over Browns owner Jimmy Haslam’s quick trigger finger, wondered whether Chudzinski would have been given a second season if Haslam had first fired CEO Joe Banner and General Manager Mike Lombardi, ousted Feb. 11.

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Yonder Alonso eager to make up for lost time

PEORIA, Ariz. -- After a promising rookie season in 2012, Padres first baseman Yonder Alonso essentially fell off the radar a year ago, the victim of a fractured right hand in May that never really healed until the season was over.

Alonso doesn't blame fans in the least if they've forgotten about him.

"To the fans, I don't blame them," Alonso said. "I was gone for something like half the year, really. It was a frustrating season for me."

That might be putting it mildly.

Coming off a rookie season in which he clubbed 39 doubles, Alonso appeared well on his way to a strong second season with the Padres, hitting .284 with six home runs in his first 190 at-bats of the '13 season before a May 31 game against the Blue Jays at Petco Park.

In the bottom of the seventh inning, Blue Jays reliever Aaron Loup hit Alonso with a pitch atop his right hand. He left with a fractured metacarpal bone and missed the next 34 games.

"That was really unfortunate for him, because he was starting to get it," said Padres manager Bud Black. "I think we all felt there was room for offensive improvement, and he was showing that."

The 26-year-old returned on July 12, but it was evident to him that he hadn't fully regained the strength in the hand. Then, on Aug. 30, Alonso injured the hand again while trying to check his swing. As it turned out, that would be his last plate appearance of the season. After hitting six home runs early, he didn't have any after he returned.

That's not to say he didn't push himself to get back on the field -- even if hand wasn't anywhere near full strength.

"There was a sense of urgency for me to get my health in place," Alonso said. "But I was good enough to play. The season takes a toll on you, and it ended up being something I couldn't handle. I competed. Was I 100 percent? No way. I felt I still needed to go out and play."

This spring, Alonso is determined to not just make up for lost time, but to continue his development as a hitter. Or, in his words, become a "smarter hitter."

"I think I became a smarter hitter during my injury. I had to really focus on my plan and my approach. I became a better hitter with my hand and my eyes," he said. "Now, I'm doing to drive the ball into the gaps, make the pitcher work and see a lot of pitches. If I do that, I'm doing my job."

Hitting coach Phil Plantier has seen Alonso make inroads with his swing. The next part, of course, is the mental side of hitting, an evolving process that is truly at-bat to at-bat.

"Part of that maturity process is not giving at-bats away; having a plan at the plate, being consistent and knowing what he wants to do before he gets in the box," Plantier said. "I think he understands that his next step is being more consistent in terms of putting his plan to work. And he needs to be stubborn with it."

Alonso continues to be asked about power and where that fits in his game. The most home runs he had during a single season were 15 in 2010 while in the Reds' system. He had nine in the big leagues during his first season with the Padres and was well on his way to surpassing that when he got hurt in 2013.

"We don't need for Yonder to hit 30 home runs for us to be a better ballclub," Plantier said. "I think we just need him to be himself; be a good hitter first, have that doubles mentality and let the power come naturally. He's got to be a consistent force somewhere in the middle of the lineup for us."

That said, Alonso thinks there's more power in his game than he's shown.

"You need to be realistic with yourself," Alonso said. "I have power, plenty of it. [Home runs] are going to come. It will be fine."

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Stephen Morris clocks 4.57 and 4.62

Miami QB Stephen Morris clocked unofficial forty times of 4.57 and 4.62 at the NFL Scouting Combine. His 4.57 speed was the second fastest amongst QBs.
Morris' stock took a nosedive during a highly inconsistent senior season, but he's got a big arm and very big hands (10 1/8") with plus athleticism. He'll certainly be worth a mid- to late-round draft flier based on talent.

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Pat O'Donnell runs a 4.62 40-yard dash

Miami punter Pat O'Donnell might not get drafted, but there's no question the guy is a good athlete.

O'Donnell, who was second nationally in punting with a 47.1-yard average, ran a 4.62-second 40-yard dash Saturday at the NFL Scouting Combine. One day earlier, he had 23 reps at 225 pounds in the bench press.

His 40 time tied the fastest by a kicker or punter since at least 2006; USC's David Buehler ran a 4.62 in 2009.

O'Donnell played one season at UM after transferring from Cincinnati. He also kicked off for the Hurricanes, with 37 touchbacks on his 79 kickoffs.

O'Donnell was second in the Big East in punting in 2012 at Cincinnati (41.8 yards per attempt), and 36 of his 75 kickoff attempts were touchbacks in '12.
His career punting average was 43.5 yards per attempt.

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Seantrel Henderson runs 5.03 with 1.71 10 yd

Miami T Seantrel Henderson ran two unofficial forty times of 5.03 seconds with a personal best 10 yard split of 1.71 seconds.

Henderson has always had great upside and flashed it on the field. Predominantly lining up at right tackle, the former top recruit has a great combination of agility and power. However, questions come with Henderson's evaluation. He could be a great player in the right situation, but he has a lot to work on, including on the field.

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Sam Shields Seeks 4-year, $22.4 Million Deal

This is the time of the year where the NFL rumor mill typically hits its apex. The NFL Scouting Combine induces teams to toss around misinformation, and the opening of free agency has agents and general managers posturing for bargaining power. So it's no surprise when rumors about a soon-to-be free agent leak.
Now it appears such a rumor has surfaced regarding Packers cornerback Sam Shields.

According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's Tom Silverstein, via a tweet from Brian Carriveau, Shields and his agent Drew Rosenhaus desire a contract in the four-year, $22.4 million range. Such a deal would pay Shields similarly to Tim Jennings whom the Bears recently extended.

This is an odd report to untangle. The supposed contract demand is very team friendly. Shields is an established number one cornerback with elite speed and only 26 years old. To lock him down for four years at an average salary of $5.6 million would be a dream scenario for any team. However, the Packers under Ted Thompson haven't been known to leak information like this. At the same time, it's difficult to see Drew Rosenhaus leaking lowball contract demands for his client.

Ultimately, this probably isn't the contract that Shields signs. If no agreement is in place by March 11, the Packers may franchise tag him to avoid other teams from stepping in and blowing up the price tag. Alternatively, if the Packers do re-sign Shields, it'll almost certainly cost more than $5.6 million per year.

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Reggie Wayne (knee) expected to be ready for camp

Colts GM Ryan Grigson said Reggie Wayne (knee) is expected to be ready for the start of training camp.

"From all the reports that I’ve been getting from our trainers and from the doctors in the meetings we’ve had, everyone’s going in the right direction. We’re optimistic about everyone," Grigson said. That includes Dwayne Allen (groin), Vick Ballard (knee), and LG Donald Thomas (quad). Wayne began straight-line running last month and is about four months removed from right ACL surgery.

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Jon Beason Expected to Become Free Agent

New York Giants General Manager Jerry Reese confirmed on Saturday what most had already known: wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, defensive end Justin Tuck and linebacker Jon Beason are all expected to become unrestricted free agents when the NFL free agency period begins on March 11th.

"You never know [about them returning], but those guys deserve to see what the market is," Reese said. "We think it's best for us right now to wait and see what the market is and make our moves from there."

Even with Beason hitting the open market, it's still safe to assume the Giants will do whatever they deem is "fair" in an effort to bring him back. The same will likely apply to Justin Tuck. But Hakeem Nicks? Probably not so much.

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Rocky McIntosh Cut

INDIANAPOLIS -- Embattled Detroit Lions kicker David Akers is among five veterans who were informed by general manager Martin Mayhew they will not return next season.

Safety John Wendling, defensive end Israel Idonije, offensive lineman Dylan Gandy and linebacker Rocky McIntosh also are out.

Mayhew would not discuss the future of players he has not yet personally talked to. That includes cornerback Rashean Mathis, who is set to become a free agent next month after starting most of his one season with the team.

Akers is the most notable player of those who will not return. He signed with the Lions last offseason, but fell out of favor after struggling with his accuracy.
He was 19-of-24 on the season, good for a 79.2 percent hit rate that was his second-worst mark since 2007.

Mayhew said he expects kickers John Potter and Giorgio Tavecchio to compete for the job after signing futures deals this offseason, though the club could pursue veterans in free agency.

Wendling spent the past four seasons with Detroit as a special teams ace, and was a captain the past two years.

"He's a heck of a guy," Mayhew said Friday morning in Indianapolis during a breakfast session with local reporters. "Spoke to him and told him I appreciated his efforts the past few years. I certainly wish him the best."

Idonije, Gandy, and McIntosh spent one season with Detroit as reserves.

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49ers like Frank Gore as No. 1 back

SANTA CLARA -- General manager Trent Baalke said the 49ers' salary cap is in "good shape," so much so it won't heavily factor into how they shape their backfield for 2014 and at what price Frank Gore returns for a 10th season.

"We can move forward exactly as is if that's what we choose to do," Baalke told reporters Friday at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.

As it stands, the 49ers remain enamored with Gore as their do-everything running back. But they also must figure out how Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James factor into the mix with a rehabilitated Marcus Lattimore, as well as practice-squad gem Jewel Hampton.

James, a 2012 second-round draft pick from Oregon, apparently isn't on the trading block despite rushing for only 184 regular-season yards in two seasons. Baalke, in a separate interview with the Sacramento Bee, said there have been no discussions to unload James.

Gore is poised to carry a $6.45 cap figure in the final year of his contract, including $3.3 million in base salary. He averaged a career-low 4.1 yards per carry last season while eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark (1,128) for the seventh time in nine seasons.

While Gore played nearly 75 percent of the snaps, his understudies saw their chances diminish, particularly because of Gore's pass-protection proficiency.
"All I can say is it's a crowded backfield. Frank had an awfully good football season," Baalke said. "Coach (Jim Harbaugh) mentioned yesterday it was A-plus-plus, and it was that kind of year.

"It's tough. There's certain game plans LaMichael was meant to play bigger role than he ended up playing. But that's the game. Every game you go in with a plan and sometimes that changes based on what you're doing and what the other team is doing. You've got to be flexible. It's up to LaMichael and every one of our players, we tell them up to you to earn time on the field."

Lattimore, the former South Carolina standout, did not play his rookie season while recovering from knee reconstruction. Hampton has not taken a snap since signing in 2012 as an undrafted free agent from Southern Illinois.

Anthony Dixon, a short-yardage back and part-time fullback last season, is scheduled to become a free agent next month. He has rushed for 458 yards and eight touchdowns in four seasons while also serving as a core special-teams player.

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Drew Brees tries to smooth over Saints-Jimmy Graham riff on Twitter

Now that Super Bowl week has passed, Drew Brees doesn’t have a desk to jump on and profess his love for Jimmy Graham. In its stead, he has taken to Twitter to help smooth over the whole Saints-Graham-franchise tag mess going down in NOLA.

If you’re unfamiliar with the situation, here’s a cliff notes version: the Saints are expected to put a franchise tag on Graham in order to negotiate a longterm contract. Though his official position is tight end, Graham wants to be franchised as a wide receiver. He would make roughly $6.8M for one year under the tight end designation; $11.6M as a receiver. The argument being that Graham is the team’s best receiving option, thus he should be paid more.

Brees comes in because he makes a boatload of money ($11M in 2014; $19M in 2015; $20M in 2016), which hamstrings the Saints from signing other star players (Graham) to lucrative deals. However, Graham is Brees’ best weapon, and the QB needs his big target.

So how do you cut through all the lawyers, contracts, negotiations and egos: by posting well-intentioned, kinda weird recruiting messages on Twitter, of course.

.@TheJimmyGraham looking shredded ..On 3/9/06..beat Clemson 66-63 in the ACC Tournament pic.twitter.com/XOjsyAc0zZ” My guy JG rockin dbl zeros!
— Drew Brees (@drewbrees) February 19, 2014

“@TheJimmyGraham: Out the house stretch my legs. @Yoloboard pic.twitter.com/VmEZy5DVkF” look forward 2 paddling w u in Nola this offseason JG!
— Drew Brees (@drewbrees) February 19, 2014

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Frank Gore may not have to restructure his deal after all

INDIANAPOLIS — San Francisco 49ers general manager Trent Baalke hinted Friday at the NFL Combine that the team won’t ask running back Frank Gore to take a pay cut. And the Niners look like they’re in a good spot to finally reduce his workload with backups Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and Marcus Lattimore.

Gore, who turns 31 in May, is due to make $6.45 million in the last year of his contract. Baalke said that contrary to public opinion, the 49ers are in good enough shape salary-cap wise that they don’t have to do anything with Gore as far as restructuring.

The 49ers are $11 million under the projected $130 million salary cap.

Baalke echoed Jim Harbaugh’s statement Thursday that Gore had an A-plus, plus season in 2013. He played 75 percent of the offensive snaps and ran for 1,128 yards and nine touchdowns.

“A-plus, plus. I mean, how can you argue with the statistics?” Baalke said. “And he brings so much more to the team, I think we all know that. Frank’s an extremely passionate guy, loves the game of football, he loves the organization. He’s everything we’re looking for from a DNA standpoint, and he’s an awfully good football player and he’s a great teammate.”

Hunter, Lattimore and James could, and should, give Gore some breathers in 2014. Baalke said the 49ers aren’t interested in trading James and that Lattimore still has four years remaining on his contract. Lattimore spent his entire rookie year rehabbing a serious knee injury and was never on the 53-man roster, preserving that year on his contract.

“It’s a crowded backfield,” Baalke said. “And like we addressed earlier, Frank had an awfully good year. When you look at that, you realize you’ve got Frank, you’ve got Kendall (Hunter), you’ve got LaMichael. It’s a crowded backfield. At certain times, the coaching staff is looking to get (James) involved, and for whatever reason in the game itself they weren’t able to.”

“It’s a delicate balance trying to keep all those guys happy when you only have one football. (James is) going to continue to grow, he’s going to continue to work hard, and he’ll get his shot at some point.”

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Some Insight into Rob Chudzinski's Role with the Colts

Thanks to the NFL Combine this week, we are hearing from a lot of people throughout the NFL in every organization, and that's no different with the Colts.  On Friday afternoon, general manager Ryan Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano both met with the media in Indianapolis, and while neither of them said much of any importance (nobody did), they did offer some insight as to what Rob Chudzinski's role with the Colts will be.

Chudzinski, the former Browns head coach, was recently hired by the Colts as a special assistant to head coach Chuck Pagano.  At the time I really liked the move, but Brad Wells brought up some very legitimate concerns.  Former Colts head coach Rick Venturi and longtime Indianapolis Star beat writer Mike Chappell both had some questions as well.  And if I'm being honest, those concerns are very valid: what does this move mean for Pep Hamilton?  Because Chudzinski is still being paid by the Browns he can't have an official coaching staff position with another team yet, but this title that he has with the Colts means he will still get paid by the Browns, too.  Some have wondered whether Chudzinski would be a co-offensive coordinator with Pep Hamilton, and if that is the case you can clearly see how that might bring about problems.

Because we haven't really gotten much information on what Chudzinski's role with the Colts will be, it has allowed speculation to run rampant.  Yesterday at the Combine, we got some insight from Grigson and Pagano.  This is what Ryan Grigson had to say about Chudzinski's role:

"He is the special assistant to the head coach and that's his title. I'll say this, first and foremost Chud has a longstanding relationship with our head coach that goes a long ways back to college when Chuck (Pagano) was a graduate assistant, Chud was a player, I think a freshman. This business is about relationships, it's about trust. He's part of our family now. He's a resource. First and foremost, Chud is a resource. His role will continue to evolve. He's a great football mind to bounce things off of. He's going to do evaluations. He's going to help in all three phases. Special teams, defense, offense, player evaluation, game day, all those types of things to help our head coach and help our team and help us get better. I think it's a great pick up."

Chuck Pagano also talked about the addition of Chudzinski - a longtime friend - to his staff:

"Rob and I had a longstanding professional and personal relationship. Goes all the way back to 1986. I was a graduate assistant. It was my third year in coaching at the University of Miami as a grad assistant for Jimmy Johnson on that staff. Rob was a freshman tight end. It just so happened Alfredo Roberts, our tight ends coach, was a tight end on that same team. He's a much different guy today than he was then. I've known Chud for a long, long time. It's a great opportunity. It's a great hire for us. Chud's going to be a great resource. His title is special assistant to the head coach. He'll be heavily involved with a lot of things that I do on a daily basis and be a great resource for me. He's going to be a great resource for our entire coaching staff, not only our offensive staff, our defensive staff, special teams, game day management. He's a brilliant guy, a really bright guy, a really smart guy, a really good football coach and he's well versed in a lot of different areas. Kind of end all of the speculation of what he's going to be doing? Why is he here? We had an opportunity to add another piece to the puzzle which makes our team better, gets us one step closer to our ultimate goal, and that's hoisting a Lombardi and hopefully participating in Super Bowl XLIX in Phoenix."

Both Grigson and Pagano said that Chudzinski a "resource."  Basically, according to what the two said at the Combine, Rob Chudzinski's first priority will be helping Chuck Pagano in his duties and will also be helping in all three phases of the games and helping to evaluate talent.  Neither one of them mentioned Chudzinski working specifically with the offense or with Pep Hamilton but rather that Chud will be working in all three areas of the game - offense, defense, and special teams.

If what Grigson and Pagano said about Chudzinski's role is true, then there's not much reason to worry for Colts fans as to how this move will work out.  When they first made the move I thought it was primarily made to help Pagano, and that sounds like what it is.  Granted, we always have to take into consideration that there are probably things that they don't want to tell us, but for the most part I don't think what they said is inaccurate.  Shortly after the season I advocated that Pagano should bring in someone as an assistant to help him, and it seems that he has done that.  We won't know for sure until we actually see it in action, but based on what Ryan Grigson and Chuck Pagano were saying in Indianapolis Friday, I think the hire of Rob Chudzinski can work very well for the Colts.

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Hand, body, soul: Yonder Alonso feeling good

PEORIA, Ariz. — Power will come in time.

At least, that is what they say, although Yonder Alonso looked like he might trump one of those axioms that hitting coaches hold so dear last year.

Eighteen homers and 87 RBIs? At Petco Park?

The numbers that Alonso was tracking in his second full season certainly fit the bill of a middle-of-the-order first baseman. Then he took a pitch off his right hand at the end of May, missed a month with a broken metacarpal bone and never really recovered the hand strength he needed to punish “his” pitches upon his return.

“It’s like, your hand was very soft, very weak; it felt like you just had tissue there,” Alonso said. “There was no muscle tone in your hands. There was no quickness. You couldn’t control the bat or the barrel with your hand. I knew I couldn’t swing at certain pitches because I was hurt or because I knew I wasn’t quick enough.

“But believe it or not, I became a better hitter because of it.”

The book is still out on that.

One thing’s for certain, though: Alonso has arrived at the Peoria Sports Complex ready to take the next step in his career.

The hand, he said, is 100 percent healthy after an offseason of rest and work with a specialist and Alonso is in camp fitter and trimmer than ever before, thanks in large part to a small army that includes a personal chef, masseuse, yoga instructor and various physical therapists and trainers.

Whether or not that translates into developing into a masher in the middle of a lineup is beside the point, he said, so long as the Padres find a way to contend.
“I really don’t put that pressure on me to hit home runs,” Alonso said. “At the end of the day, you’re trying to be the best you can be. The sport is not all about home runs. You have to do many other things other than home runs to be a good teammate, a good player, and for me, home runs is just one big number.”
Just not one big number for Alonso – yet.

The 26-year-old Cuban never hit more than a 15 homers during a minor league season and topped out at nine the one year he played a full season in the majors, although half of those games were played in cavernous Petco Park in 2012.

But a career .840 OPS in the minors reveals a hitter who takes his walks and drives the ball, over the wall or not, and the Padres were beginning to see a semblance of that player materialize in San Diego.

He set the franchise’s rookie record with 39 doubles in 2012 upon joining the team as part of the five-player trade that set Mat Latos to Cincinnati and pushed his on-base percentage 75 points higher than his respectable .273 average.

Only the next step – Alonso had nearly as many homers (six) as doubles (seven) when he first injured his hand – didn’t go as planned after a fast start to 2013. Even after resting his hand for a month, Alonso watched his slugging percentage plummet from .416 to .306 after breaking his hand before the Padres ultimately shut him down in September.

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Ryan Braun will face on-field challenges, too

Phoenix — Ryan Braun is going to have his hands full this season.

The fallout from his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal last year will likely be unrelenting. Throw in a move from left to right field, and Braun is going to be challenged on the baseball field like never before.

"I haven't really been out there a whole lot," said Braun when asked about the switch. "I guess everything that I'm accustomed to in left field will be opposite in right field. So, I don't anticipate it necessarily being easy, but it's just, most importantly, getting used to reading the ball off the bat."

The emergence of Braun's replacement, Khris Davis, down the stretch last season helped set Braun's move in motion.

With the Brewers eager to give Davis more playing time in 2014, and Davis limited to playing left field because of his throwing arm, talk of moving Braun to right began early in the off-season. It became a reality in December when Milwaukee traded Norichika Aoki to Kansas City, with Braun communicating his willingness to make such a shift beforehand.

Manager Ron Roenicke revealed last week that thoughts of moving Braun to right actually surfaced in his first year as Brewers manager in 2011. It didn't happen, though, and Braun went on to win the National League Most Valuable Player in left field while Corey Hart remained in right.

"That's never an easy decision," Roenicke said. "Usually, when you see that good a defensive outfielder and he can throw, you think of him as a rightfielder. I kept asking, 'Are more balls in baseball hit to left field or right field?' Because that's where you want your best fielder, right?

"From what I gathered, it was pretty consistent to both fields, so I didn't think there was a need to move him at that time."

Position switches aren't foreign to Braun, who was a shortstop in college and played third base through his first major-league season with the Brewers in 2007 before being switched to left. Braun improved to the point where he was a finalist for the Rawlings Gold Glove Award in 2011 and '12, but rated out as slightly above average according to the metrics over the course of his six seasons there.

Scouting reports and video helped him make that initial transition.

"I felt in left field the thing that helped me most was taking balls live during batting practice, really getting used to the way the ball comes off the bat (from) right-handed hitters, left-handed hitters," Braun said.

"I'm starting to figure out how our pitchers approach hitters, paying attention to scouting reports and having an idea of where I'm going to play when positioning myself in right field."

Braun's arm isn't the cannon possessed by prototype major-league rightfielders, but he can make up for that with great accuracy. His athleticism also should be plenty good for the position.

"Ryan has the ability to play center field — he's an athlete," said Brewers Gold Glove centerfielder Carlos Gomez. "He used to be an infielder. I don't think he's going to feel (the move) at all."

What's likely to cause Braun the most issues early on are the nuances of the position —getting reads off the bat, taking precise routes to the ball and dealing with caroms off the wall. Right-center field in Miller Park can be especially tricky due to the large cutout just to the left of a large patio area.

In order to better deal with all that, Braun might play deeper to start, which will allow him to get comfortable reading the ball off the bat and cover less ground going back on balls. Aoki, by comparison, played a deep right in each of his two seasons with the Brewers.

"It won't be that easy a transition, even though he's a very good leftfielder," said Roenicke, who himself played all three outfield positions during his big-league career.

"It's different when the ball turns the other way, and for so many years it always goes to the line. Now it goes the other way. But I think he'll do fine. You can't hit fungoes right-handed that way and hook it. So you have to play games. There's going to be some plays that he turns the wrong way. But he's a good enough athlete.

"I'm hoping with time that he'll be really good out there."

With full-squad workouts having just begun, Braun will have roughly six weeks as well as a month's worth of games to get himself acclimated. In past springs, Braun, like most veterans, played sparingly early before ramping things up toward the end of camp.

That could change this year, however.

"We haven't really discussed it too much yet, so I don't really know what the plan is," Braun said. "Most importantly, it's about getting reps, whether that's in batting practice or in games, possibly going and playing in minor-league games where I can be an all-time defender, which would be new for me.

"The more reps I can get in right field over the next six weeks, the more beneficial it will be to me as the season starts."

Because of an early-season neck strain, a right thumb contusion, a four-game leave for a family medical issue and then his 65-game suspension, Braun's offensive numbers were his lowest for his career — a .298 average, nine home runs, 38 RBI and a .498 slugging percentage.

Braun has been utilizing padding on the handles of his bats and in his batting gloves to try to prevent a repeat of the thumb issue, which led to a three-week stint on the disabled list.

If he's able to stay healthy, Braun will once again hit third in a lineup that, when healthy, will contain plenty of pop from top to bottom.

Just being back on a baseball field — challenges or not — has Braun in a good frame of mind.

"It's great. It's exciting," he said. "Obviously, I've had a lot of downtime with my extended off-season. I'm certainly excited to be back, excited to be in Arizona, excited to meet my new teammates, looking forward to the challenge of learning a new position.

"I'm just excited to be back to playing baseball."