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Peyton Manning is looking for football programs interested in advancing the game.

The five-time MVP quarterback and now an ambassador for Riddell will review applicants for an equipment grant from the company through its Smarter Football initiative, now in its third year. Smarter Football is a grass-roots campaign that recognizes and rewards teams across the country for implementing smarter tactics on and off the field. Some 1,700 football programs across North America from the youth level up to semi-pro have applied for an equipment grant the past two seasons.

super cheap jerseysOver the years, I’ve attended many youth and high school football practices,” says Manning, who retired after winning the Super Bowl in February 2016 with Denver. “I’ve witnessed the struggle many of these programs undergo to get the right equipment to provide proper protection for their players. In addition to promoting a safer approach to the sport together, Riddell’s Smarter Football program has the opportunity to ignite new energy into these hard-working programs.”

Riddell has launched Precision-Fit, a state-of-the-art three-dimensional head scanning process used to build a custom-fitting, player-specific helmet liner system to provide personalized protection. Riddell also has technology that summarizes players’ on-field alerts and identifies training opportunities for athletes.

“I’ve always valued preparation and information, both on and off the field,” Manning adds. “I studied everything from the helmet I wore to the tape I watched to the plays I called to try to set myself and my team up for success.

“This year’s program will continue to recognize and reward those at all levels of play who have taken steps towards improving and advancing the sport of football, especially when it comes to player safety and protection.”

Although Peyton Manning has retired from football, there’s one thing he definitely hasn’t retired from: singing Johnny Cash songs in public.

Manning’s latest concert came last week when he randomly showed up to a bar in Ireland and started belting out “Folsom Prison Blues.” The free concert came in the late night hours of July 27.

Although Manning isn’t as famous in Ireland as he is in the United States, he was definitely recognized during his trip to Quays Irish Bar in Dublin, and as soon as he started singing, several patrons at the bar decided to start recording him.

Here’s Manning showing off his singing skills.

After he was done singing, the former Broncos quarterback took some time to pose for pictures at the bar.

Apparently, Manning was in Ireland because he was on the tail end of a golf trip that started in Scotland.

Manning is now clearly in the Carmen Sandiego phase of his retirement, which means he could show up anywhere in the world, and probably will.

As for the Johnny Cash stuff, this isn’t the first time Manning has covered “Folsom Prison Blues.” As a matter of fact, it may or may not be the only Cash song he’s ever sang in public.

Back in 2014, Manning sang “Folsom Prison Blues” during a charity event with country singer Jake Owens. One year later, Manning sang the same song with Dierks Bentley. The next time we see him, don’t be surprised if he’s singing it in Barbados with Madonna, because, at this point, anything seems possible.

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Giants diehards and fantasy football fans aren’t the only two cliques fantasizing about Big Blue’s newfangled offense.

One of New York’s receivers can’t hold back his excitement at the prospect of playing alongside Pro Bowl giants Odell Beckham and Brandon Marshall.
“I’m very excited a part of that good group of guys,” Shepard told Sirius XM NFL Radio on Saturday while hosting a Hyundai Youth Football Camp. “Especially having Odell and Brandon on the outside now is going to help free up the inside for Evan [Engram] and I. That’s every wide receiver’s dream to have two great guys on the outside that are going to draw a lot of attention. That’s what you’re getting with those two. We should have a feast in the inside if we prepare good enough.”

Ever since the Giants made the consecutive acquisitions of Marshall in free agency and hybrid tight end Engram in the first round of the 2017 draft, pundits have salivated at the potential of the most dynamic receiving corps of Eli Manning’s career.

Shepard’s comments echo the expectations many have had about the Giants’ offense: the caliber of weapons on the outside will open up the middle of the field for Shepard, Engram and New York’s running backs. More open opportunities means less time in the pocket for Eli and fewer sacks surrendered by the offensive line, a position group that is arguably the Giants’ biggest hole on the roster.

However, before this magic domino effect can take hold, we’ll have to see if there are too many cooks, or rather personalities, in Hell’s Kitchen. Someone’s targets are bound to decrease, and it’s likely the odd man out is Shepard. If that ends up being the case, will the second-year pro still be singing the same optimistic tune come midseason?

Sterling Shepard truly did not realize how fast his life was going until he stopped to take a moment and exhale.

His final college season at Oklahoma, a place where he essentially grew from a boy into a young man on campus, quickly shifted to the NFL’s scouting combine, which was immediately followed by the 2016 draft and his second-round selection by the Giants, who brought him into the fold with plenty of fanfare.

And Shepard’s rookie season just kept going: into the starting lineup with Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr., part of an 11-win team that reached the playoffs for the first time since Super Bowl XLVI with eight touchdown receptions and countless things learned.

When it was over, with time to reflect on a solid pro debut, Shepard settled on what he considered the greatest lesson from his solid professional debut: Slow down.

“Truth be told, it’s such a long season, and I have passed this along to the young guys [in the Giants’ current rookiebest place to buy cheap jerseys class], you don’t want to come in and kill yourself by trying to do so much so quickly,” Shepard told The Record and during a break last Saturday from the Hyundai youth football camp for which he served as headliner at Superdome Sports.

“The biggest lesson that I learned is that you’ve got to slow down. Don’t take everything so fast, and maintain so that you’re ready for the whole season and not just at the start.”

The Giants believe Shepard is poised for a second NFL season with even greater expectations as one of Manning’s top targets. Beckham Jr. and Brandon Marshall will presumably garner much of the attention from opposing defenses on the perimeter, and the first-round selection of tight end Evan Engram could provide Manning with his best option at that position in terms of playmaking ability since Jeremy Shockey.

Where does that leave Shepard, who racked up 65 catches, 683 yards and those eight scores?

In the perfect spot, and let him explain.

“Feel like we’ve found the missing pieces to the puzzle,” Shepard said. “Evan’s gonna be a matchup nightmare, to be honest. I see no reason why [Engram’s presence] won’t add to opportunities for me, especially with Odell and Brandon on the outside, it’s gonna open up the middle and I feel like we’ll both be eating. This offense is going to be as good as we make it, but we’ve got to work hard for it.”

Shepard’s offseason included training sessions earlier this month with Jamal Liggin, the Los Angeles-based speed and performance trainer who has worked closely with Beckham over the last three seasons. The priority for Shepard going into this season – the Giants report to training camp Thursday – has been to improve his separation with extra speed work. Also, he’s focused on eliminating what he considered to be far too many dropped passes last season.

“When I came out of college, I had only dropped, like, six balls my whole career,” Shepard said. “I want to get back to that, and the main thing I’ve been working on is separation and speed. I want some of the deeper routes, more of those big plays.”

Late last week, Giants All-Pro safety Landon Collins responded to Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott’s prediction that Dallas would repeat as NFC East champion by promising this would be Big Blue’s season to “take over” the division.

“Whatever Landon says, of course I’ve got his back,” Shepard said with a smile. “End of the day, we’ve got to come on the field and do what we do. I don’t listen to the talk or any back and forth. We’re confident in what we have. We understand there’s a target on us now.”

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cheap-discount-jerseysWhen the San Francisco 49ers made sweeping changes this offseason, they did so knowing this wasn’t going to be an overnight turnaround.

General manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan got six-year deals partly as acknowledgement of that fact. Even though they made a flurry of moves to bolster the roster, they still passed on trying to force finding a franchise quarterback and opted instead to sign a bridge starter in Brian Hoyer. This season will lay the foundation as they hope to find their quarterback next offseason and potentially begin adding playmakers around him.

How long do you think it will take for the 49ers’ rebuild to work and for them to contend for the division again?

Josh Weinfuss, ESPN Arizona Cardinals reporter: The Niners’ turnaround is going to take some time. Their personnel moves and commitment to rebuilding their roster were impressive this offseason, but it won’t be translate into a winner in 2017. Five, six or seven wins might even be a stretch. It’ll take at least three seasons for them to compete in the division again. They’re young, and that comes with its own learning curve. And they don’t have a quarterback of the future — yet. Once they find a quarterback who can be the offensive foundation for years to come, then San Francisco could turn the corner and become a competitive team in the West again. That may take another draft or two, or even another free-agent class or two. It’ll certainly take time.

Alden Gonzalez, ESPN Los Angeles Rams reporter: There’s a reason Lynch and Shanahan were brought in on six-year contracts. This is going to take some time. The 49ers went 2-14 in Chip Kelly’s first and only season as coach then completely retooled, using nearly $80 million in salary-cap space to address what became a barren roster. The Niners improved an offense that finished last in the NFL in passing yards mostly through free agency, adding a couple of quarterbacks, led by Hoyer, and a handful of pass-catchers, headlined by Pierre Garcon. They then addressed a defense that was by far the league’s worst last year through a savvy draft that netted Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster at the top. But there are still holes throughout the roster. And the Niners aren’t going to be a legitimate contender until they find their quarterback of the future. The 2018 draft class looks good at quarterback. And if that doesn’t work out, Shanahan can always take a stab at trading for old friend Kirk Cousins. Patience is key, though. FPI projects a 5-11 record for the 49ers in 2017 and gives them a 3 percent chance of making the playoffs. This will take at least three years.

Sheil Kapadia, ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter: It’s difficult to see the 49ers competing for the division before 2019 — at the earliest. Lynch and Shanahan have inherited a massive rebuilding project, and until they find a long-term solution at quarterback, it’ll be tough to take them seriously as contenders. We have seen what Shanahan can do when he has talent to work with offensively, but this season will offer a test on some of the limitations of coaching and scheme. If the 49ers are able to come up with a solution at quarterback next offseason, that could make up for other areas of weakness on the roster and speed up their rebuild.

The 49ers are rebooting all over again in 2017. So far, they’re off to a smart start with Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch.

Since Chip Kelly became one-and-done and dragged Trent Baalke out the door with him, the 49ers already have showed signs they struck gold with their new coach-GM combination.

San Francisco’s mission was to mine as much talent as possible with three years down the line in mind. Although the offensive-minded Shanahan may need to wait to develop his ideal attack, the defensive-driven Lynch has stockpiled well for an equally massive transition on the other side of the ball.

The 49ers won’t suddenly become Shanahan’s 2016 Falcons or Lynch’s 2002 Buccaneers, but the blueprint is evident in their new depth chart.

It may have seemed odd for the 49ers to give Garcon, who turns 31 in August, a five-year deal. He still has a good amount of his speed and quickness, but it was his tough route-running and impressive intangibles that were most attractive for a post-Washington reunion with Shanahan. The 49ers have been missing some basic reliability at wideout after moving on from both Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin. Garcon will be a leader and a go-to outside receiver for Hoyer, with the natural transition to thrive with Cousins again.

Jeremy Kerley was useful in the slot as the team’s leading receiver last season, but by scheme and by necessity because of oft-injured Bruce Ellington, he may be called upon to line up outside as the only true veteran complement to Garcon. As for former Bill Marquise Goodwin, Shanahan will look to use his track-star speed in special packages, exactly as he did with Taylor Gabriel in Atlanta. The group may not be as prolific or pretty as that of other teams, but the 49ers did get better and grittier at wide receiver.

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Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has made more than his share of dynamic — and sometimes unbelievable — cheap authetnic nfl jerseys plays since entering the league as the top pick of the 2011 NFL draft.

He’s as polarizing as any player in the league, whether it’s with his running, throwing, dancing or fashion.

Today’s question: What’s the best performance Newton has had against your team, and where would you rank him among NFC South quarterbacks?

Jenna Laine, Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter: It’s hard to choose just one career game for Newton against the Bucs because he has had several, much to the chagrin of Bucs fans. In his rookie season, Newton set the single-season rushing-touchdown record when he rushed for three TDs and threw for another in a 38-19 win over the Bucs in Week 13. In Week 16 that year, he threw for three touchdowns and rushed for a fourth in a 48-16 rout of the Bucs to set the NFL rookie passing record. In 2015, he threw for two touchdowns and rushed for two more to win 38-10. Ranking Newton is tricky because he had such a down year in 2016 — he had three straight games with a completion percentage under 50 percent. Even without some of his weapons and burdened by an ailing secondary, that’s not good enough. Because of that down year, I’d put him third in the division, behind Matt Ryan and Drew Brees and ahead of Jameis Winston. But that could quickly change, especially with new weapons such as Curtis Samuel and Christian McCaffrey on offense.

Vaughn McClure, Atlanta Falcons reporter: Newton posted a career single-game high 153.3 passer rating in a 38-0 win over the Falcons on Dec. 13, 2015. In that game, Newton completed 15 of 21 passes for 265 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions while sitting out the entire fourth quarter. Newton went on to win the MVP and lead his team to the Super Bowl that season. His play, however, has declined since then as he has been tossed around like a rag doll while absorbing vicious hits. So where does Newton rank among quarterbacks in the division? I’d say third right now behind reigning MVP Ryan and Brees, with Winston gaining momentum. Newton posted a passer rating of 75.8 last season, which was 28th in the league and well behind Ryan’s league-leading 117.1, and also trailed both Brees (101.7) and Winston (86.1). But Newton could enjoy a bounce-back year, provided he stays healthy, gets good protection and utilizes the new weapons at his disposal, including first-round draft pick McCaffrey.

Mike Triplett, New Orleans Saints reporter: Unfortunately for the Saints, there have been a few worthy candidates for this honor — especially in recent years, with Newton throwing for at least 315 yards in three of their past four meetings. But it’s hard to top his 331-yard, five-TD performance in a 41-38 win at New Orleans in Week 13 of 2015, which lifted the Panthers’ record to 12-0 en route to the Super Bowl. With that game still fresh in his memory last summer, Saints coach Sean Payton said Newton is “obviously” a Tier 1 quarterback, “and anyone [in the media] that were to vote otherwise should probably cover a different sport.” Alas, Newton’s biggest weakness has always been his consistency, as he showed with his disappointing 2016 season. He has had some real stinkers against the Saints over the years, too. And the game that will always stand out most to me is the one in which he was at both his worst and best: Week 16 of the 2013 season, with the NFC South title on the line at Carolina. Newton had completed just 10 passes with no touchdowns and an interception in the first 59 minutes, and the Panthers trailed 13-10 after they failed to convert a third down all day. But then Newton completed passes of 37, 14 and 14 yards for a stunning game-winning touchdown drive that lasted just 32 seconds. I’d rank Newton third among NFC South quarterbacks right now because Brees and Ryan are coming off much better seasons. But when Newton is on like he was in 2015, he obviously has the potential to top them both.

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That too-vulgar-for-cable-TV roast of David Ortiz, during which Patriots star tight end Rob Gronkowski told a terribly old “cheap Jew” joke apparently meets with commissioner Roger Goodell’s new definition of NFL players having “spontaneous fun.”

After all, that was over a week ago, and still nothing from the NFL. So it must’ve passed the league’s stink test. And that’s OK. It’s not as if good ol’ foul-mouthed Gronk made fun of installing transgender bathrooms in North Carolina. That is the kind of rank social insensitivity thing that can get one in hot water.

And it isn’t as if he called out vulgar black rappers who denigrate other black men as “N—-s” and trash women as expletives good for nothing but on-demand, wham-bam sex. Those “entertainers” become the very special guests and performers of those same leagues that threaten states with removal of their business until the state legislates change to meet the highest-minded standards of those leagues.

The inconsistencies come flying at us like trumps from President Tweet.

Brent Musburger was publicly spanked by ESPN for his outrageous on-air sexism — he noted the conspicuous, that Alabama QB A.J.

McCarron’s girlfriend, now his wife, Katherine Webb, is gorgeous. That was unforgivable, inexcusable.

But the same ESPN has no problems when its “serious female broadcast journalists” who should not be subjected to sexual objectification disseminate photos of themselves posed in bikinis.

And “The Body” issue of ESPN’s magazine is out, in case the Internet doesn’t fulfill one’s prurient needs.

But shame-shame on Musburger.

Our colleges have become bastions of female empowerment. Good. I didn’t send my two daughters to college to depart as second-rate humans. And the schools make it damned clear that sexism of any kind will not be tolerated on these campuses!

Except … except in the case of recruiting basketball and football players. That is when some campus lovelies will help serve as bait, escorts, or in Rutgers’ NCAA-exposed case, female “ambassadors,” members of the “football hostess program.” Like Hostess cupcakes.
But then the same colleges that use attractive, come-hither young women as recruit-bait will hold seminars for the same recruits, to remind them or tell them for the first time that women are not to be sexually mistreated or treated as punching bags.

But some of the consistencies are at least as flabbergasting as the inconsistencies.

FOX Sports last week laid off roughly 20 staffers, most of whom contributed to a website that featured strong reporting, well-written and well-thought opinion pieces with just a minimum of transparent shilling of all things FOX and FS1, none of which apparently pleased new management.

The decision to turn the site into a FOX Sports video showcase was made by Jamie Horowitz, who also has busied himself throwing millions of dollars to hire ESPN expendables such as let’s-debate-the-time-of-day Skip Bayless, and NBA “Insider” and false-credit-taker Chris Broussard, and extremely embarrassing ESPN busts Ray Lewis and Cris Carter.

While at ESPN, Horowitz helped turn the network into a just-make-noise box, a cross-promotional wasteland that became the target of steady, well-deserved national ridicule.

And now he seems to have been hired to do the same for FOX Sports.
Then there are those inconsistencies that make you think you got off on the wrong planet.

One moment Wednesday, Yankees manager Joe Girardi was seen on YES giving Gary Sanchez an in-game dugout tutorial on how to better get down to block pitches thrown in the dirt. Soon, Girardi would explain that Sanchez didn’t run out a double play because he has a strained groin muscle. Got that? Neither do I.

Then there are the consistent inconsistencies.

The Rays’ Alex Colome is among the MLB’s leaders in saves with 20. Yet, in 35 innings he has allowed 31 hits and walked 14, blowing four saves and losing three games.

But you don’t have to be an effective pitcher to be among the leaders in saves. That is why so many closers pitch for so many teams. Career saves specialist Fernando Rodney — 281 saves! — is so special he now is pitching for Arizona, his seventh team in the past eight seasons.

It is like when the stock market takes a beating and analysts explain it as “a correction.” So how come when the market goes on a run it isn’t identified as “incorrect” or that something wrong is occurring?

Then there’s “drug deal gone bad,” an “untimely death,” and “affordable housing,” the latter built for those who can’t afford housing. But I just work here.
Whistle blowers sound off in new book

The best stories are told by refs, umps and civil court judges. To that end, retired 30-year college basketball ref, Mickey Crowley, with the help of Ralph Wimbish, who used to edit this column, has written a seat-of-power (bathroom) companion book, “Throw The Ball High,” from Page Publishing.

It is loaded with fabulous.

Jim Valvano: “Mickey, can I get a technical foul for thinking that you stink?”

Crowley: “Of course not.”

Valvano: “Good. I think you stink.”

UConn’s Jim Calhoun, when the Big East had coaches rate officials after every game, told Crowley and his partner he was rating their performance a 5 out of 10. “You guys can split it up anyway you want.”

Crowley also shares a photo of scribbled hate mail he received and kept for decades, likely from a guy who was getting 2 ½ in a 3-point loss.

Even the forward, written by former Columbia and Fordham head coach Tom Penders, is a hoot. He writes of a poll taken by Eastern Basketball Magazine, asking refs to name the coach who gives them the hardest time. The “winner”? Seton Hall’s Bill Raftery.

There is a latter-day picture in the book of Crowley and Raftery, arms around each other’s shoulders, both with huge smiles.

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Even with Tony Romo out of the building, Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott maintains he had a strong relationship with the departed franchise legend.

“I mean, Tony did an amazing job of helping me out. I think that’s what Tony realized is that, he couldn’t necessarily control whether he was going to play or not. But what he can control is our relationship,” Prescott said Wednesday on The Rich Eisen Show.

“And I think Tony did a great job, and I commend Tony and thank him so much for that — of being another coach for me, of helping me out, of in the middle of the game, at practice, on the field [and] off the field, giving me advice. And as a guy who went through exactly what I went through — taking over the position from an older veteran, and knowing what it’s like to be the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, and just helping me out.”

Prescott said Romo never made their relationship awkward.

“It truly never did [get uncomfortable]. And that’s why I say I commend him,” Prescott said. “I don’t know how he felt personally. I mean, obviously I know as much of a competitor he is, that he wanted to play. That as much success that he had in this league, that he probably felt that he should play. But it never [got uncomfortable]. And as I said, he always was so helpful to me. And I felt it was genuine, and I commend him for that.”

We likely will never know the extent of the franchise’s internal drama during last season’s incredible run. Romo’s concession speech and subsequent career change helped paint the sunny narrative Prescott continues to relay. However, as NFL Network’s Jane Slater reported in the midst of Romo’s decision making process, there certainly was some resentment and unhappiness.

“Just shows you the scope of where his head is at,” Slater wrote at the time in a follow-up. “He feels his team was taken from him. Struggling to grasp that as anyone would.”

If Romo kept these personal feelings away from the team during their sprint to an NFC East title, I’d be inclined to give him even more credit. At the least, both deserve a hand for not letting a potentially volatile situation spill out into the public eye to the point where Romo’s personal feelings became a distraction.

Tony Romo may be out of Dallas, but he hasn’t been forgotten by sophomore quarterback Dak Prescott. Prescott spoke his relationship with Romo on The Rich Eisen Show on Wednesday, and Prescott had nothing but good things to say about the former QB.

Prescott complimented Romo on never making their relationship awkward, as veteran and young quarterback relationships can sometimes be (hearkening back to the Brett Favre-Aaron Rodgers horror stories of old). Prescott also continued to assert that there was never any internal drama.

“I mean, Tony did an amazing job of helping me out. I think that’s what Tony realized is that, he couldn’t necessarily control whether he was going to play or not. But what he can control is our relationship,” Prescott told Eisen. “And I think Tony did a great job, and I commend Tony and thank him so much for that — of being another coach for me, of helping me out, of in the middle of the game, at practice, on the field [and] off the field, giving me advice.”

Prescott’s comments on how Romo handled the discomfort of coaching your prospective replacement were equally warm.

“It truly never did [get uncomfortable]. And that’s why I say I commend him,” Prescott said. “I don’t know how he felt personally. I mean, obviously I know as much of a competitor he is, that he wanted to play.”

Even though Prescott may have said “I commend him” one too many times throughout the interview, the message is clear. He is undoubtedly happy with where he and Romo were at. The Cowboys had an outstanding run in 2016, and no matter how hard it was for Romo, he watched his team succeed. At worst, Romo was able to put aside his feelings about losing “his” team and do what benefited the Cowboys not only on the field, but also in the media.

Whatever the case may be, the Cowboys are Prescott’s team now. He’s focused on leading a Super Bowl contender, and the Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott tandem look like they’ll be the face of the Cowboys for years to come.

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This will be a very interesting season for the Dallas Cowboys as they work to prove 2016 was no fluke.

With a historic 13-3 season followed by another one-and-done playoff stint, the question is can the Cowboys finally turn the corner in 2017 and land their sixth franchise Super Bowl win? CBS Sports believes they have what it takes, and says you should be thrilled about what’s coming.

It was just this time last year when all eyes were on quarterback Tony Romo in his return from injury, while the team’s faithful basked in the excitement of seeing the healthy four-time pro bowler combined with a healthy Dez Bryant and fourth overall pick, running back Ezekiel Elliott.

Fast forward to the present and Romo now works for CBS, Dak Prescott is the 2016 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and most of the defensive secondary is barely old enough to legally drink.

The Cowboys are gearing up for a run at Super Bowl 52! Don’t miss any breaking news, take a second to sign up for our FREE Cowboys newsletter!

A lot of questions remain and many surround the secondary and first-round pick Taco Charlton, who the team hopes can come in and make an immediate impact on the defensive front. If they can take their pass rush to the next level, the rest will most certainly fall into place.

Is it football season yet?

How well did the Cowboys do this past offseason? The team has effectively opted out of the major free agent market for the last several years. While fans laud big-name acquisitions for the most part, it’s become obvious a more prudent approach is taken by the better teams of the NFL. This isn’t to say there isn’t gold to be found, like what the 2016 New York Giants did with their defense, but this is normally the response to bad draft practices. The Cowboys have excelled at acquiring retail goods for wholesale prices.

But how did they do in 2017? ESPN’s Todd Archer took a look at the offseason changes the Cowboys roster has gone through, giving them a B-.

As the front office has morphed into a more democratic process in recent years, their success in the draft has been markedly better. The precise combination of Jerry and Stephen Jones along with Jason Garrett and Will McClay has left the Cowboys with a young, talented roster:

“The Cowboys have altered their construction process in recent years, moving away from high-priced free agents and older players and focusing on developing players through the draft. With two division titles in three years, the plan seems to be working.”

For years, the front office operated as if they were only a player away, opting to sign impact free agents to big-money contracts. All the while personnel people lauded the build-through-the-draft mentality of teams like Green Bay and New England.

It wasn’t that Dallas didn’t intend to build through the draft, they simply didn’t have the success that they were looking for and some times got too “cute” with their selections (see 2009). Dallas’ success here seems two-fold in that they’ve stayed away from high-priced free agents and that they’ve been largely successful in their draft evaluations. This can be seen in a simple salary cap health evaluation. The club is currently over $16 million under the salary cap while still carrying $16 million in dead money.

That money would likely have been spent on the secondary if the Cowboys saw fit to do so during free agency. We’ve heard from Stephen Jones that they were taking a fairly calculated risk with this group. However, the loss of Barry Church in particular is one that Archer will likely watch closely:

“While Jeff Heath has shown flashes of ability in limited playing time, replacing Church will be difficult. He had four straight seasons with at least 100 tackles. He was a defensive captain, played special teams and was around the ball. The Cowboys could have gone to him before last season with a new deal, or made a stronger pitch to keep him off the market as free agency approached — but didn’t. Church, who signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars, wasn’t a high-end safety but he meant more to the Cowboys’ success than the coaches want to believe. He was not a progress-stopper.”

Whether it’s Heath, Anthony Brown or Chidobe Awuzie, these young players in the secondary will be a major story line during training camp.

As for what Archer liked about the offseason, it centered around a player he predicted as a good fit prior to the draft, first-round pick Taco Charlton.

Drafting Taco Charlton was a positive step in rebuilding the defensive line. They used first-round picks to rebuild the offensive line in Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin. They made second-round moves to address their pass rush in recent years through the likes of DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory, but they have relied more on low-cost and late-round pickups to fill in gaps. Charlton’s sack totals increased every year while at Michigan. He play with more leverage and strength than speed and quickness, but still figures to be a big part of the pass-rush rotation. He might never be a DeMarcus Ware, but if he is another Greg Ellis, the Cowboys certainly would take that.

As a matter of fact, there is no shortage of young players drafted on the defensive side of the ball that will be under heavy scrutiny by these coaches as they work to retool this football team. Will the changes and influx of new players lead to a more formidable defense when December and January roll around? The team will certainly need above average returns from several spots if they look to improve on the results of 2016.

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In the offseason, major networks turn to rankings to get them through the slow times of the NFL season. One such ranking last season ranked the best quarterback-wide receiver combinations in the league.

You had Tom Brady and Julian Edelman, Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson, Dak Prescott/Tony Romo and Dez Bryant and others, but they all were looking up at Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown.

The Pittsburgh Steelers duo almost has a sixth sense type of connection few have on the gridiron. You’ve heard it a million times in interviews, the connection is built around trust. Trust that Roethlisberger will find Brown, and trust Brown will make the play, no matter what, when facing single coverage.

This relationship hasn’t happened overnight, but is something second round rookie wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster longs for, after nothing more than just Organized Team Activities (OTAs) in a black and gold uniform.

“Just today, I was watching [Antonio] and Ben. It’s eight years they’ve put together,” he told Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after the last day of OTAs. “That’s something I want with a quarterback. For us to be all out here, we’re all building the same trust.”

Smith-Schuster might get such an opportunity earlier than expected in his rookie season. The big-bodied wide receiver was taking first team reps throughout the offseason workouts, but you can take that with a grain of salt until the team reports to training camp on July 27th.

Although Smith-Schuster might not have 8 years to develop such a rapport with Roethlisberger, like Brown did, he will have to learn quickly if he wants to make an impact on the offense in 2017. Last year, Eli Rogers spoke about the time it took for he and Roethlisberger to get on the same page with coverages, route adjustments and seeing the same thing at the line of scrimmage.

Nonetheless, with minicamp quickly approaching, and the simple fact Smith-Schuster was a second round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, he will have every chance possible to prove himself worthy of starting repetitions when the team starts hitting at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, PA in late July.

In the meantime, Smith-Schuster will get to watch the best quarterback-wide receiver duo in the NFL do work every day, and learn from it.

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After an individual workout in front of Lakers brass — cheap authetnic nfl jerseys which included Magic Johnson, the player he patterned his game after — point guard Lonzo Ball reiterated his desire on Wednesday to play for his hometown team.

“Of course,” Ball answered during an eight-minute media session that followed the workout. “It’s home.”

Ball also said that if the Lakers pass on him, he would play for any team.

“I’ll go to any team and just do what I do,” Ball said. “Play basketball.”

This was the first and could be the only workout for the Chino Hills, California, native. One source told ESPN that the Lakers, who have the second pick in the June 22 draft, wanted to get a close look at his unorthodox shooting form. Ball said that a significant portion of the workout involved shooting.

Boston general manager Danny Ainge recently said that Ball had declined to work out for the Celtics, despite a chance to be selected No. 1 overall.

Multiple sources told ESPN that Ball is the front-runner to be selected by the Lakers, but that former Kansas wing Josh Jackson and ex-Kentucky point guard De’Aaron Fox are also in the equation.

“I got positive vibes,” Ball said of his workout. “It was a lot of fun.”

Despite playing in front of Johnson, the new Lakers boss and former NBA star, Ball said there were no nerves.

“I don’t get nervous playing basketball,” Ball said.

Ball’s Big Baller Brand shoes were not on display Wednesday when he worked out for the Lakers. Instead, Ball worked out in James Harden’s signature Adidas shoe.

Ball’s ZO2 isn’t in mass production yet. He has said that his shoe is the only shoe he plans on wearing in the NBA.

Ball made the 50-mile trip Tuesday, had dinner in Venice with members of the organization, including Johnson, and then worked out for the team at 9:30 a.m. PT Wednesday. He will do medical testing Thursday morning before heading back home. He was not accompanied by his father, LaVar Ball, who has captured headlines with his lightning-rod personality.

Asked if Lakers brass asked about his dad, Lonzo Ball said: “They said they love him. That’s about it.”

Unlike his father, Ball is brief with his words. He answered in excess of 50 questions during the eight-minute media session, most with a single sentence.

Ball said the speculation that his father has been a distraction is nothing new, and won’t bother him in the NBA.

“They said that about me in high school, they said that about me in college,” Ball said. “I don’t think it will affect me.”

“Everyone has an opinion,” he added. “I know who I am. People who know me know who I am. That’s all that matters.”

The 6-foot-6 Ball averaged 14.6 points, 7.6 assists and 6.0 rebounds in his lone season at UCLA and shot 41 percent from beyond the arc. Ball said there’s no need to change the mechanics on his shot — as long as he continues to make shots.

“As long as it works,” he said.

Ball would come in and likely play point guard, shifting D’Angelo Russell off the ball.

“They need a leader,” Ball said when asked why the Lakers should draft him. “They need a point guard. I feel like I can fill that hole.”

Asked if he’s the best player in the draft, Ball didn’t mince his brief number of words.

“I think I am,” he said.

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Gronk’s gone. We can only hope it’s not forever.

The immediate ramifications are obvious. The New England Patriots are one thing with Rob Gronkowski at tight end and another, lesser thing without him at tight end. But you don’t need me, Ben Volin, Bill Belichick, Ron Jaworski, or the ghost of George Halas to tell you this.

Regardless, do count me among those who believe the absence of Gronkowski will not be the reason you won’t be seeing the Patriots win that coveted fifth Super Bowl championship. We are all waiting to see the get-’em-off-the-field defense a Super Bowl champion usually needs. (I say “usually” because we didn’t see that type of defense in Super Bowl XLIX, either. But thanks to Pete Carroll’s ill-fated goal-line decision, and Malcolm Butler’s play for the ages, the Patriots escaped, anyway.)

Of course, I want to be wrong. But that’s the way I see it.

Let’s talk about Gronk’s legacy.

I am of the belief that when you talk about all-time greats in any sport it is necessary to differentiate between career achievement and short-term greatness. Sometimes we overlook athletic comets flashing across the sky. There are players of undeniable greatness in all sports who are unable to sustain their performance for the long, long haul because of injury. I’ll wager, for example, that legions of current NBA fans have no idea there was once a frightening force of nature by the name of Andrew Toney. He’s not in the Hall of Fame, and never will be. His career lasted from 1980-88. He played in 468 NBA games, but in his final three seasons he was only able to participate in 87 of a potential 246 games because of stress fractures in both feet, fractures that for a very long period went improperly diagnosed.

But, oh, those first five years. The man was unguardable. A 6-foot-3-inch guard with a great pro body, he could go right or left, shoot threes, take it to the hoop, and please don’t foul him. He played with what I can only describe as a contempt for defenders. As far as his battles with the Celtics were concerned, not for nothing was he nicknamed the “Boston Strangler.”

Larry Bird on Toney: “He was a killer . . . the absolute best I’ve ever seen at shooting the ball at crucial times. We had nobody who could come close to stopping him. Nobody.”

And Toney is forgotten by the general public today. It happens.

Will that happen to Gronk if his career is through (and I’m not saying it is)? Gronk has an outsized personality to accompany his athletic greatness. And there are those of us who believe that while he will not match the complete career accomplishments of, say, Tony Gonzalez, at his playing best he may very well be the best tight end who has ever played the game. Of course, that’s an opinion, and it will be debated.

Now, what if I told you there was a Gronk before Gronk? What if I told you there was a Gronk before Gronk who is not ever going into the Hall of Fame, a Gronk before Gronk who played only nine NFL seasons and was nowhere near his real self in four of those final five seasons because of a debilitating knee injury, a Gronk before Gronk whose official nickname was “Rambo,” a Gronk before Gronk who — and this is where we enter into the you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up category — was even coached by the same guy who has borne witness to every second of Rob Gronkowski’s professional career?

Does the name Mark Bavaro ring a bell?

As recently as the fall of 2015, Bill Belichick thought it was necessary to pump the brakes on the public adulation of Gronkowski. That’s because during his run as defensive coordinator of the New York Giants back in the ’90s, Belichick had seen what he felt was some pretty amazing stuff from the team’s resident tight end, one Mark Bavaro, the pride of Danvers and Notre Dame.

Bavaro was a fourth-round draft pick in 1985. The Giants already had a pretty good tight end in Zeke Mowatt, but this kid immediately inserted himself into the picture.

He was a starter on the 1986 and 1990 Giants Super Bowl champs, and in that capacity he earned a reputation as the best combination pass receiver/blocker at his position. At least that’s the way the current HC of the NEP saw it in a pair of interviews from the fall of 2015. In fact, Belichick said you’d have to compare Gronkowski to Bavaro, not the other way around.

For example: “It would be hard for me to put anyone past Bavaro just because of the times he blocked Reggie White with no help. There was no double team; he just blocked him. Now that was a good battle. Reggie got him a few times, too.”

In another interview a short time later, Belichick said, “Mark’s in a really special category. His toughness, his overall complete play as a tight end and blocker, just as a total competitor, was just outstanding. I don’t think that any of us who coached him or played with him feel he has gotten the recognition we know he deserves.”

The coach also acknowledged the difference in numbers between Gronk and Bavaro (e.g. 68 receiving TDs for Gronk vs. 39 for Bavaro) to “different era, different game.”

One play in particular defines Bavaro, and I urge you to check it out. On Dec. 1, 1986, Bavaro caught a short pass from Phil Simms, and what happened after that was rather astonishing. He somehow tacked on 20-plus yards while dragging upward of seven — swear to God — 49ers with him, one being Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott. It does give you some idea of Bavaro’s greatness.

Mark Bavaro was the polar opposite of Rob Gronkowski in personality. I discovered that myself when he was an undergraduate at Notre Dame and I went to interview him as part of my then-job with Channel 5. He was a young man of very few words. Very few. Later on, he was a slightly older man of very few words. Very, very few. That never changed. He was neither a showman nor a pitchman. He was just a total football player and great teammate. His knee betrayed him and kept him from having the kind of career that winds up with someone giving a speech (in his case, a short one, I’m sure) in Canton, Ohio, on some hot July date.

But if Bill Belichick says Rob Gronkowski should be happy to be compared with Mark Bavaro, who needs the Hall of Fame?

Mark Bavaro. Remember the name.