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FRISCO, Texas — As Jason Witten gets ready for what will be a franchise-record 16th season with the Dallas Cowboys, he knows this might be the year the team drafts his successor with an early-round pick.

“They’ve got to find the best roster that they can do,” Witten said last week at the inaugural Jason Witten College Man of the Year Award dinner. “It would be foolish to get sensitive and worry about that. You’ve got to be able to compete and play at a high level. I welcome that and certainly I would help that guy in any way and I think the most important thing is let’s make our football team better. I know Stephen and Jerry [Jones] and Will [McClay] and coach [Jason] Garrett, they’re doing everything they can to put us in position in free agency and the draft to do that. Tight end position may be one of those spots.”

The Cowboys have drafted three tight ends in the second round over the past 12 years: Anthony Fasano (2006), Martellus Bennett (2008) and Gavin Escobar (2012).

Their plan with those selections was to pair the pick with Witten as part of a strong two-tight-end set that could be dominant with the run, especially with Bennett, and versatile with the pass, especially with Escobar. The latter was selected in part because the Cowboys were going to emulate what the New England Patriots did with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

It never worked out. Fasano was traded after the 2007 season. Bennett caught four touchdown passes, all as a rookie, and left in free agency. Escobar, who also left as a free agent, never had more than nine catches in a season.

Witten has finished first or second on the team in receptions the past 11 seasons, including 2017 when he caught 63 passes for 560 yards and five touchdowns. In the past five seasons, he has not played fewer than 96 percent of the snaps, including 98 percent in 2017.

After managing his practice work the past few seasons, there have been whispers this offseason of cutting back on Witten’s snaps in order to theoretically make him better late in games or late in the season.

To do so, the Cowboys need to have a tight end to do what Witten does in the running and passing games. James Hanna and Geoff Swaim have worked into smaller roles in the offense. The Cowboys like the potential of Blake Jarwin. Rico Gathers is a fan favorite based on two preseasons.

Can any of them handle a bigger role? Would a potential early draft pick?

Last season, Garrett, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and quarterback Dak Prescott said Witten, who turns 36 in May, showed no signs of slowing down. Witten would not be coming back for another season if he did not think he could play at a high level and already has begun the process of getting ready for 2018.

“There’s no other way. I’ve got to improve,” Witten said. “Another year older, you know, that’s another 1,000 snaps underneath that I have behind me. So I’ll do it again and I think it’ll be important for me to perform at a high level. It’s a bottom line, right? Does the pitch count kick in? My job is to be able to perform for three hours or three and a half hours every Sunday and I’ve got to work my tail off to get to the point where I can do it, and that’s what motivates me.”

The ultimate motivation is a Super Bowl. Already the franchise leader in receptions and receiving yards and second to Tony Gonzalez among tight ends in NFL history, Witten does not need more catches or yards to build a Hall of Fame resume.

He is playing because he believes he can play a major role in winning a championship.

He said if the Cowboys draft another tight end it would not serve as “fuel,” to dispel the notion he can no longer do it. He is at a different place in his career than when the Cowboys selected Fasano, Bennett and Escobar.

“I feel like if you don’t have [the desire to win a title] you don’t need to be playing,” Witten said. “If you’ve got to convince yourself of that or, ‘Hey, can I amp up for one more?’ That’s already a sign [to call it quits]. And that’s never been the case with me to this point. I’ve never had that feeling. I’m sure I will at some point because it is demanding. It’s taxing.

“But it goes hand in hand. It’s both mental and physical. Maybe what you lose physically you gain mentally in your education, knowledge, how you study and see it and how quickly you see it and break it down. That’s an advantage for sure being able to be smart and make quick decisions. But you are, you’re fighting off Father Time and you’ve got to work your ass off to do it. Certainly I’ve tried to do that over the course of the last few years.”

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Source — Green Bay Packers fire special teams coordinator Shawn Mennenga

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GREEN BAY, Wis. — The Green Bay Packers have fired special teams coordinator Shawn Mennenga after two seasons in that role with the team, a source confirmed to ESPN.

Mennenga was part of coach Matt LaFleur’s original staff when he was hired before the 2019 season.

There was no immediate word on the status of defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, whose contract expired after this season. Pettine was meeting with LaFleur on Wednesday to discuss his status.

Pettine opted not to sign an extension after last season, sources said. Most Packers’ coordinators and position coaches always have two years on their deals, but Pettine chose to go into the last year of his contract and see how things played out.

Despite the Packers’ 13-3 regular season and berth in the NFC championship, they struggled on special teams throughout the season.

Blocked kicks, long returns allowed and an ineffective return game overshadowed a near-perfect season by kicker Mason Crosby, one of the few bright spots on special teams.

The Packers ranked 29th in Rick Gosselin’s annual special teams rankings, widely considered the gold standard for special teams evaluation around the league. Green Bay was 26th last season.

Mennenga inherited the worst special teams unit in the league from 2018, when they ranked 32nd under former coordinator Ron Zook. The Packers also ranked last in the league in 2014 under then coordinator Shawn Slocum. The club’s highest ranking on special teams between 2014 and 2020 was 16th in 2017.

Among the Packers’ issues on special teams this season were:

  • Two punt returns allowed for touchdowns (a 91-yarder in Week 10 by the Jaguars and a 73-yarder by the Eagles in Week 13)

  • A fourth-quarter fumbled kickoff return by Darrius Shepherd in what as a tie game during Week 11 against the Colts that the Packers went on to lose in overtime

  • A blocked punt in Week 9 by the 49ers

  • A bad snap on an extra point in the divisional playoff game against the Rams that led to a scramble situation on which holder JK Scott panicked and threw the ball to Crosby, who suffered a shoulder injury

  • An inconsistent season punting by Scott

Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst used draft picks in 2018 on Scott (fifth round) long snapper Hunter Bradley (seventh round), and neither has performed up to standards.

NFL Network first reported the news about Mennenga’s firing.

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With QB vacancy needing to be filled, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay says team ‘close’ to Super Bowl

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INDIANAPOLIS — Colts owner Jim Irsay has gone from not having to really worry about the quarterback position for nearly 20 years to now heading into his second straight offseason not knowing who will be the starter in 2021.

“The type of team we have, it would really benefit us most if we could have someone who can come in and play at a high level, with a veteran vision,” Irsay said Wednesday.

The Colts have a young and talented roster led by linebacker Darius Leonard and guard Quenton Nelson, but they have a substantial void at quarterback. Veteran Philip Rivers, 39, led the Colts to the playoffs for just the second time since 2014, but he announced Jan. 20 that he was retiring after 17 seasons.

Rivers’ retirement means the Colts could have their fifth different Week 1 starting quarterback in 2021 after they had Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck basically from 1998 until 2019. Rookie Jacob Eason is the only quarterback currently under contract for the Colts. Jacoby Brissett, who started Week 1 in 2019, is scheduled to be a free agent.

Colts general manager Chris Ballard’s belief is that a team is not all about the quarterback; it’s about having a complete roster. But there has to be stability at quarterback, as the four teams that reached the NFC and AFC Championship Games — Green Bay, Tampa Bay, Kansas City and Buffalo — all have that.

“Our belief is we’re close, that we have a tremendous nucleus of players that are capable of competing for the Super Bowl very soon,” Irsay said. “Ideally if you can get someone to come in this year who’s ready to go, it gives you your best opportunity.”

The Colts are projected to have around $69 million in salary-cap space, but it’s not really a hot free-agent market at quarterback, as players like Cam Newton and Jameis Winston highlight that group. Ballard didn’t sound optimistic about finding a quarterback at their current position, No. 21, in the first round of the draft either.

The other option is the trade market, where Detroit‘s Matthew Stafford continues to be linked to the Colts as a possible destination.

Irsay acknowledged that the franchise would gladly welcome back Luck, who suddenly retired in August 2019, if he decides to resume his career. The two haven’t discussed a possible return, but the owner did joke that he will continue to look at his fax machine in case the quarterback decided to take a page out of Michael Jordan’s book by sending a message that simply said, “I’m back,” like Jordan following his first retirement from the Chicago Bulls.

“He knows how much we’d love to have him be our quarterback, there’s just no question about that,” Irsay said. “But at the same time, we know for it to work out, he has to be the one that says ‘You know what? I’m ready. I want to really create a little bit of history, in unprecedented aspects.'”

Irsay added, “I don’t know if we’ll see that. I think he’s happy. He’s raising his daughter. He has a wonderful family. He’s a great Colt and he knows that can come back any time he wants, but at the same time, we respect that he’s made that decision.”

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Seattle Seahawks say Chad Wheeler is no longer with team, condemn domestic violence, encourage him ‘to get the help he needs’

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SEATTLE — The Seattle Seahawks say offensive tackle Chad Wheeler is no longer with the team following his arrest on suspicion of felony assault-domestic violence.

The 27-year-old Wheeler is accused of choking his girlfriend until she lost consciousness.

A spokesperson with the King County prosecutor’s office told ESPN that a charging decision is expected to be made by Wednesday afternoon.

The Seahawks released a statement Wednesday that read, in part: “The Seahawks are saddened by the details emerging against Chad Wheeler and strongly condemn this act of domestic violence. Our thoughts and support are with the victim. Chad is a free agent and no longer with the team.”

Wheeler was arrested early Saturday morning after the alleged assault at a residence in the Seattle suburb of Kent.

According to a police report obtained by ESPN, the woman called 911 from inside a locked bathroom and said she was being “killed.” The report states that the woman had fled into the bathroom after Wheeler threw her onto a bed and choked her long enough for her to lose consciousness, at one point removing one hand to press it against her nose and mouth to try to stop her from breathing while continuing to choke her with his other hand.

When the woman regained consciousness, according to the report, Wheeler was standing near the bed and said, “Wow, you’re alive?”

The woman told police that Wheeler suffers from bipolar disorder and has not been taking his medication recently.

“We encourage Chad to get the help he needs,” the Seahawks said in their statement. “If you are experiencing mental health issues, please reach out for help.”

Prosecutors asked for Wheeler to be held on $500,000 bail following his weekend arrest. The judge set bail at $400,000 and ordered Wheeler to have no contact with the woman and to surrender any weapons.

Wheeler appeared in court Monday to determine if there was probable cause to continue holding him in jail. He was released Tuesday morning after posting a $400,000 bail bond.

An NFL spokesperson told ESPN: “The matter is under review of the personal conduct policy.”

Wheeler is scheduled to become a restricted free agent. He would become an unrestricted free agent if the team does not tender him. The Seahawks removed Wheeler from their online roster, which still lists other pending RFAs.

A message to Wheeler’s agent from ESPN has not been returned.

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