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Justin Tucker endorses kickoff rule proposal for splitting uprights

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It’s not exactly the rule change that Justin Tucker once suggested, but the Baltimore Ravens’ All-Pro kicker put his support behind the Washington Redskins’ proposal that would reward teams for putting a kickoff over the crossbar.

The proposal, which could be voted on next week by NFL owners, moves the line of scrimmage to the 20-yard line for any touchback where the kick sails through the uprights. Touchbacks on kickoffs currently place the ball at the 25-yard line after last year’s rule change.

Not surprisingly, Tucker endorsed this bonus of five yards of field position because it increases the value of kickers.

Tucker and coach John Harbaugh brought up a proposal during last season that would have taken this a step further. They suggested teams get 1 point if kickoffs go over the crossbar.

Last season, Tucker was tied for ninth in the NFL with 52 touchbacks. In November, he was asked to estimate how many kickoffs he would be able to put through the uprights.

“It would be hard to say a specific number,” Tucker said. “I mean, shoot, if I had to throw one out there, maybe one out of every five if the weather is all right and the field’s good. Again, that’s kind of considering all factors, wind, field, etc.”

The reason cited for the Redskins’ proposal is player safety. By giving the opportunity for improved field position, teams presumably would attempt more kicks into the end zone, and that would result in fewer returns, which are considered one of the most dangerous plays in the game because of the high-speed collisions.

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Better pass-rusher than Clay Matthews? Try Jayrone Elliott

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GREEN BAY, Wis. — If you thought re-signing Jayrone Elliott was just to fill out the 90-man offseason roster, his contract confirmed differently.

The fourth-year outside linebacker will indeed be part of their plans for 2017.

That seemed to be in question when the Green Bay Packers decided not to tender him as a restricted free agent, leaving him free to sign with any team. The lowest RFA tender would have cost the Packers $1.797 million. That would have given the Packers the right of first refusal to match any offer Elliott received, although they would not get any compensation had they not matched it.

Elliott ended up receiving a better deal because he got some guaranteed money — $350,000 in the form of a signing bonus — in the one-year, $1.6 million deal he signed last week after he visited the Bills and Steelers.

For most of his first three seasons, Elliott has been buried on the outside linebacker depth chart. He’s made his biggest contributions on special teams. But in a small sample size, especially the past two seasons, there is evidence he should take on a larger role as a pass-rusher.

Although he has just four sacks over the past two seasons combined (one in 2016 and three in 2015), they have come on just 310 snaps, including playoffs. That works out to a sack every 77.5 snaps. That’s on par with Julius Peppers’ mark of one sack every 75.1 snaps over the past two seasons and far exceeds Clay Matthews (one for every 127.4 snaps) and Datone Jones (one for every 264.5 snaps). By comparison, Nick Perry, who was re-signed to a five-year, $60 million deal by the Packers, had one sack for every 58.3 snaps he played the past two seasons.

With Peppers and Jones gone, having signed with the Panthers and Vikings, respectively, it could benefit Elliott.

Here’s how Elliott’s contract breaks down:

2017

Cash value: $1.6 million

Salary-cap charge: $1,521,875 (it’s lower than the cash value because the weekly roster bonus charge is based on the 11 games he played in last season).

Signing bonus: $350,000

Weekly roster bonus: Up to $250,000 ($15,625 per game active)

Workout bonus: $50,000

Base salary: $950,000

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CB DeShawn Shead, Seahawks agree to the terms of the one-year transaction

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The Seattle Seahawks have agreed to terms on a one-year deal with cornerback DeShawn Shead, per a league source.

The deal is worth $1.5 million with $1 million guaranteed at the time of signing, per a league source.

710 ESPN Seattle was first to report the Seahawks’ agreement with Shead.

Shead started 15 games opposite Richard Sherman last season and played at a high level, but he suffered a torn ACL and meniscus in his left knee in the divisional round of the playoffs.

He finished last season with an interception, forced fumble and 14 passes defended.

Shead was originally a restricted free agent, but the team did not tender him, making him an unrestricted free agent. He took a free-agent visit to the Buffalo Bills but is returning to Seattle.

Seahawks general manager John Schneider said at the combine that Shead would have a hard time being ready for the start of the 2017 season, but coach Pete Carroll said Shead had a chance to return for Week 1.

“DeShawn is a great kid. He’s got really strong faith,” Schneider told reporters. “You’d want him to be your son — you know what I mean? His mindset is like, ‘Hey, I’m going.’ I say he’s probably not going to be there right away; that’s just me. He’s probably got a different mindset. He’s crushing his rehab right now.”

Shead, 28, began his career on the Seahawks’ practice squad before working his way into a starting cornerback role in 2015. He also served as Seattle’s special-teams captain last season.

When healthy, Shead will have a chance to compete for the starting cornerback job.

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The saints solved the second wave of free players with Alex Okafor’s greatest demand

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METAIRIE, La. — The New Orleans Saints kicked off the second wave of free agency by addressing their most glaring need, agreeing to terms with former Arizona Cardinals edge rusher Alex Okafor.

The 26-year-old was a rotational pass-rusher in Arizona, but he has the potential to be an upgrade over the guys who have been rotating in that spot with the Saints over the past two years. Okafor had 3.5 sacks last year and a total of 13.5 over the past three years.

Terms: Not immediately available (NFL Network reported one year, up to $3 million)

ESPN 150 ranking: No. 121

Grade B: This was a good Week 2 “value” signing, and I like Okafor’s potential to become more than just a rotational backup. As a bonus, the former fourth-round pick from Texas is one of safety Kenny Vaccaro’s best friends, so the Saints should have a good (though biased) scouting report. I wouldn’t have minded the Saints overpaying for an elite pass-rusher, since they need an upgrade at this position so badly (Sean Payton called it a “must”). But the problem was that none of the elites hit the open market, since Jason Pierre-Paul, Melvin Ingram and Chandler Jones all were locked up with franchise tags.

What it means: Okafor (6-foot-4, 261 pounds) has enough size to defend the run as well as rush the passer, and his production could rise with more opportunities. ESPN Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss wrote that “he is a solid role player who can spell any edge rusher in the league without much of a drop-off.” Even if Okafor is penciled in as New Orleans’ starting defensive end on the weakside edge, this position should remain a priority early in the draft — possibly with the No. 11 pick. The Saints are hoping to get third-year pass-rusher Hau’oli Kikaha back in the rotation after he recovers from last summer’s ACL injury. They have already let one of their former pass-rushers go, with Kasim Edebali signing with the Denver Broncos. It remains to be seen if they will bring back free-agent veterans Paul Kruger or Darryl Tapp.

What’s the risk? “Risk” probably isn’t the right word since this will be a minimal deal. You could argue that the Saints are rolling the dice by not investing more heavily in a proven starter. Okafor played only 214 snaps in 15 games last year because of the Cardinals’ addition of Jones and the emergence of Markus Golden. He has a total of just 5.5 sacks over the past two years after flashing with eight sacks and an interception in 2014.

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Tre Mason was released by Rams and never reported to the team in the 16th season

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THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — The Los Angeles Rams formally waived troubled running back Tre Mason on Friday, a decision that was long considered inevitable.

Mason, a third-round pick out of Auburn in 2014, never reported to the team last season and spent the entire year in and out of legal trouble. At one point, TMZ published a dash-cam video in which a woman who appeared to be Mason’s mother blamed CTE for what she had previously described as “unusual behavior” and “irrational statements” from her son.

The Rams spent a large portion of 2016 communicating with Mason’s agent, Bus Cook, and were finally able to meet with Mason personally a few weeks ago.

“Tre visited us within the last month,” Rams general manager Les Snead said Friday, the day his team introduced new left tackle Andrew Whitworth and wide receiver Robert Woods. “We came to the conclusion we thought it was best to move in this direction, for all parties.”

Snead didn’t provide specifics about his meeting with Mason, only to call it “productive” and “a step in the right direction.” The Rams’ GM also didn’t feel comfortable providing an update on Mason’s well-being, but he did get the impression that “there is some intention to play football again” for Mason.

Mason was the Rams’ primary running back for most of the 2014 season, gaining 765 yards on 179 attempts. The Rams then drafted Todd Gurley 10th overall and Mason assumed a backup role, rushing 75 times for 207 yards in 2015.

Then Mason, 23, seemingly became mercurial.

On March 5, 2016, Mason was arrested during a traffic stop in Hollywood, Florida, and faced five charges, for resisting an officer/obstruction without violence, reckless driving, failure to register a motor vehicle, possession of marijuana in an amount less than 20 grams and failure to yield the right of way to an emergency vehicle.

Law-enforcement officers were reportedly called to Mason’s mother’s home at least five times between the traffic stop in March and a bizarre ATV incident in July.

Mason was at a park on the afternoon of July 27 allegedly doing wheelies on an ATV. When police tried to stop him, Mason sped past them and fled to his mother’s home in Lake Worth, Florida. Law-enforcement officials followed Mason to the home and cited him for operating an ATV on public roads and failing to stop for police. A dash-cam video recorded Mason’s mom, Tina, telling responding officers that her son is “22 in a 10-year-old’s mindset right now.”

Mason was excused from the Rams’ offseason training program in June for personal reasons and was put on the reserve/did not report list at the start of training camp on July 30, remaining under that designation throughout the regular season.

The Rams at least reached some semblance of closure.

“Throughout the process, we’ve been communicating with him — his family, his agent — at different points on the timeline,” Snead said Friday. “But this was a great meeting.”

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d in his locker wrapped in towels and joki

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SAN ANTONIO — Overtime victories on back-to-back nights in different cities left the San Antonio Spurs spent.

Fidgeting with a game book, Danny Green widened his gaze upon noticing he hadn’t played 38 minutes “in a long time.” To Green’s right, LaMarcus Aldridge slouched in his locker wrapped in towels and jokingly wondered whether he’d “be able to walk” the next day.

Across the room, Kawhi Leonard stood up and pulled on a hoodie.

“It is what it is,” he said. “Everybody plays back-to-backs.”

It’s tough to complain when this is what Leonard craved all along.

From David Robinson to Tim Duncan, Duncan to Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, and now on to Leonard, the Spurs continue to transition from one superstar to the next, all the while never missing a beat. San Antonio clinched its 20th consecutive postseason berth Saturday by defeating the Minnesota Timberwolves 97-90 in overtime, and they accomplished this latest milestone for the first time in 19 seasons without Duncan.

The Spurs belong to Leonard now, and he’s snatched the proverbial torch from The Big Fundamental on the way to setting the league on fire.

“They’ve been very smooth,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told ESPN.com in explaining the team’s various transitions over the years. “The fact they’ve been so smooth is just a testament to the character of the people involved. Their awareness of the situation they’re in, their ability to have gotten over themselves and know where they are at that point in their career, and to look around and be knowledgeable enough to know what the newcomer can give — well, that’s what we’ve had all the way down the line. Those guys understanding that and wanting that to happen.

“They’d rather play for 10 more years, but realize that’s not going to happen. When they see the obvious abilities of the younger guys coming along, they’ve actually helped them and created an environment where they can be successful. So, it’s really a tribute to their character and their understanding of what’s going on.”

Not prone to hyperbole, Popovich apparently knew all along what the Spurs had in Leonard. In responding to a question from a fan in a Spurs mailbag going into Leonard’s second NBA season in 2012, Popovich wrote: “I think he’s going to be a star. And as time goes on, he’ll be the face of the Spurs I think.”

That time is now.

MVP candidate

Leonard is one of just three players in league history — Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon are the two others — to win NBA Finals MVP and NBA Defensive Player of the Year (twice). And he joined more elite company on March 1 with a 31-point night against Indiana, making the forward the fourth player in franchise history with 20 outings or more scoring 30-plus points in a single season (he now has 23 after Monday night’s heroics vs. Houston), joining George Gervin (7), David Robinson (4) and Tim Duncan (1). In the process, Leonard backed down Paul George to knock down the winning basket of a 100-99 thriller. The shot improved Leonard to 3-for-5 over the past two seasons on potential go-ahead attempts in the final 5 seconds of a game, which registers as the best percentage in the NBA on such shots (minimum five attempts) in that span.

Leonard relishes those opportunities.

“I work all summer and throughout the whole season to be prepared for the challenges that I have to face,” he said. “You just have to keep going. If you play bad or go 0-for-10 in the fourth, whatever, you’ve just got to keep pounding and going and going, and not give up if you want to become that guy.”

That’s one attribute Popovich loves about Leonard. The coach said very few athletes possess that mentality.

“He handles the responsibility well. Most importantly, he knows that things are not always going to be positive in the sense of win, lose, or make or miss a shot,” Popovich said. “And that’s what’s been very good about him because some people don’t understand that, and they’re afraid to have that responsibility night after night after night. You think of Kobe [Bryant], you think of LeBron [James], you think of Michael [Jordan], and you think of all these guys that had to do that. They got to the point where they realized the shot wasn’t going to go down all the time, or they might even turn it over. But they come right back. They don’t shy away the next time. They want it again. Kawhi has that knack. He has that ability, and that’s important because very, very few people have that.”

Leonard ranks No. 2 in the NBA in Player Efficiency Rating (28.68). Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook owns the best PER (29.81), though Leonard’s Spurs are winning games at a much higher rate than Westbrook’s Thunder (.790 for the Spurs compared to .556 for the Thunder).

Leonard also ranks third in win shares (11.3), just behind Harden and Kevin Durant. Leonard and Durant are the only players in the league to rank in the top three in both win shares and PER, and they are the only two players to rank in the top 10 of both offensive and defensive win shares.

Leonard is averaging a career-high 26.1 points per game, and according to Elias Sports Bureau, is one of just three players to increase his scoring average in each of the past five seasons, joining Gordon Hayward (six straight) and Jimmy Butler. Leonard has also produced five games this season in which he poured in 30 points to go with four steals or more. No other player has produced more than two such outings.

“He is a really unique player,” New Orleans Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “You don’t want to say Michael Jordan, but it’s that type of situation, where you’ve got a really, really good offensive player and a tremendous defensive player. He impacts the game. There’s very few guys in this league that can impact the game on both ends of the floor like he can. For the last 15 years, they’ve been flying under the radar. So, it’s nothing new. They’re just a very good team, and they got a very great player. And, yeah, where they are record-wise and everything, he definitely has to be heavily in the conversation for MVP.”

Leonard, meanwhile, isn’t concerned about where he’ll fare in a race that also includes James Harden, James, Durant and Westbrook. In fact, Leonard said “it’s pretty easy” for him to block out the outside noise.

“I don’t watch ESPN, don’t listen to the radio,” Leonard said. “I just go home and deal with my family.”

But even they have to be discussing what’s expected to be a heated MVP race, right?

“It depends on who I’m with, but we don’t really talk about it,” Leonard said. “I’ll just be chillin’. We could talk about it, but we’ve got to wait and see really.”

Rams show uniforms, helmet retro design

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INDIANAPOLIS — The Los Angeles Rams finalized what they called an “evolving” of their uniform for the 2017 season on Thursday, unveiling a redesign that removes the gold from their pants and brings back the blue-and-white helmets from the 1960s and ’70s.

The Rams announced the new concepts over the past couple of days and took a very rare step in allowing fans to vote on specifics through Facebook and Twitter.

Fans voted on whether the pants would have one or two solid blue stripes, and whether the helmets would come with blue or white facemasks.

Fans chose the one blue stripe and the white facemask, which the Rams will now wear for home games at the Coliseum.

Per NFL rules, though, the jersey must remain the same, and continue to have hints of gold along the shoulders, until the Rams do a complete rebranding of their uniforms. The team is planning that for the 2019 season, its first in the new stadium, and has already begun talks with Nike and the NFL on what that will look like.

The Rams’ most popular uniforms are the throwback blue-and-yellows, which they can still wear on a couple of occasions this coming season.

The Rams went to their white jerseys for both home and road games in 2016, their first year back in Los Angeles.

On the road, they wore blue pants with gold stripes. Those stripes will now be white. The throwback helmet, which the team brought out for the Thursday game against the Seahawks this past season, was made popular by Roman Gabriel and the “Fearsome Foursome.”

In a statement released by the team, Gabriel said: “This just goes to show all the hard work my teammates and I put in while wearing those uniforms isn’t forgotten. We loved those uniforms and wore them with pride. I know the current players will wear their uniforms, especially the white horns, with just as much pride.”

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Chris long tribute to Pat, but would like to continue “do my best practice”

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Veteran defensive end Chris Long signed a one-year contract with the New England Patriots last offseason in hopes of winning a Super Bowl, and with that goal accomplished, he explained Wednesday why he will be moving on in 2017.

On his Instagram account, Long thanked Patriots fans and expressed his admiration and appreciation for teammates and coach Bill Belichick, before writing, “This has zero to do with money … it’s the right move in my heart because I want to get back to being the player I was before. I’m thankful for my role this year, but as a competitor, I’m itching to do what I do best.”

Long, who played the first eight years of his career with the Rams in St. Louis and was never part of a team with a winning record, might be seeking a more expanded role or a defensive system that he feels is more tailored to his skill set.

In Super Bowl LI, he played just 15 snaps as a designated pass-rusher and made a big impact, drawing a critical holding penalty that helped push the Atlanta Falcons out of field goal range when they had been in position to kick a field goal late and possibly increase their lead to 11 points.

Long, who turns 32 on March 28, brought a level of professionalism to New England that earned him widespread respect among teammates in the locker room.

In an ESPN Radio interview after the Super Bowl, Long said, “I’m excited for the next step. I didn’t know coming into this year that I could still play football at a high level. I feel like I can play just as well as I did before I started getting hurt [in 2014-2015].”

The 6-foot-3, 270-pound Long had signed a one-year, $2.35 million contract with the Patriots in March 2016. He played in all 16 regular-season games, as well as all three playoff games, opening the year as a starter and finishing as a situational pass-rusher.

Playing 65.1 percent of the defensive snaps, Long totaled 35 tackles and four sacks in the regular season.

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