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PITTSBURGH — The Steelers are negotiating with the game’s best running back on a long-term contract and managing a tight salary cap that will likely require the release of multiple veterans.

Yet one of the biggest stories surrounding the team this week was the growing chatter involving Martavis Bryant, who wanted out of Pittsburgh at midseason only to reverse course with expressed optimism for 2018 after the playoff loss to Jacksonville.

After talking with several people around the league, there’s minimal buzz that the Steelers are actively shopping Bryant. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t at least listening, as NFL Network reports. The Steelers are smart enough to field calls on the talented receiver.

It’s important to prioritize this reality: Bryant and the Steelers have not had any discussions about a contract extension. Bryant is a free agent in 2019, and if both parties were in an ideal spot, the possibility of a short re-up or long-term pact could have been broached by now, even if the Steelers typically wait until the summer to finalize business.

Pittsburgh hasn’t made any overtures on a modest bridge contract, in part because they aren’t sure what they’ll get from him and also because Bryant doesn’t have plans to sign. He’s made clear he wants to be a No. 1 receiver, and that has to happen elsewhere. If you’re looking for a potential trade catalyst, that’s it.

The Steelers don’t want Bryant causing any problems in 2018.

It wouldn’t be a surprise if Bryant sat out offseason workouts to crystallize his frustration.

This awkward dynamic makes a trade plausible. Even if motivated to deal, though, the Steelers likely wouldn’t budge without a hefty draft-pick haul. The message Bryant received at the October trade deadline was that the team felt fair compensation in exchange for Bryant’s skill set was not available. The Steelers likely got offers for a fourth-round pick. That wasn’t enough.

A late-second-rounder or low-third could help the Steelers — who have been brilliant drafting receivers for much of the past decade — identify a new vertical threat. Perhaps the Buffalo Bills, who were trying to get involved last year, could oblige.

Since that’s no guarantee, trading Bryant breaks up a potent receiver triumvirate with clear roles defined: Antonio Brown the do-it-all superstar, Bryant the lanky deep threat and JuJu Smith-Schuster the inside-out option.

Smith-Schuster’s historic rookie year does give the Steelers draft flexibility. He looks ready to be a No. 2 receiver. Ben Roethlisberger averaged a 134.0 passer rating when targeting Smith-Schuster last season, according to Pro Football Focus. But how would Smith-Schuster respond to a full-time transition to the outside with Bryant gone? He looks up to the challenge, but the Steelers must ask and answer that question. With Eli Rogers recovering from a torn ACL, the Steelers could run dangerously thin at a crucial position.

The Steelers’ best course of action is likely to give Bryant the chance to maximize his potential in a motivating contract year. Bryant signing elsewhere in free agency would be a plus in the Steelers’ compensatory pick formula for the 2019 draft. The switch to coordinator Randy Fichtner could help free up Bryant with more targets.

Either way, Bryant will be performing with a different jersey for 2019 in mind, and the Steelers pretty much know it.

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Tony Finau gets surprise FaceTime call from Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Tom Brady during Masters rain delay

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AUGUSTA, Georgia — Tony Finau got quite the surprise during Saturday’s lengthy weather delay in the third round of the Masters Tournament.

While Finau was waiting for the rain to stop, he hung out in the caddie house at Augusta National Golf Club. Jimmy Dunne, a member of the club, handed Finau his cell phone.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady, a six-time Super Bowl champion, was on FaceTime on the phone.

“That was a pleasant surprise,” Finau said. “He said, ‘Great playing,’ and he was following. He was surprised we stopped. He said in the NFL when it rains you don’t stop. I let him know, ‘Yeah, maybe we’re not as tough as you guys,’ but he said, ‘No, that’s not the case.’ We had a good laugh about that.”

Finau said he had met Brady once before in 2017, when Brady was still playing for the New England Patriots. Finau said he grew up a Dallas Cowboys fan, but now mostly cheers for individual NFL players.

Finau didn’t say whether Brady gave him a pep talk during the weather delay, which lasted more than an hour.

He shot 1-over 73 in the third round and is 8 shots behind leader Hideki Matsuyama going into Sunday.

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Texas A&M Aggies QB Kellen Mond has ‘upside’ as intriguing Day 2 NFL draft option, scouts say

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Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond is considered an intriguing Day 2 option for teams out of reach of the top quarterbacks in April’s draft.

“There’s upside there,” said one longtime NFC scout. “If anything I would have liked to see him let loose a little more.”

And teams are doing their research on the four-year starter. Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher tells ESPN that he’s had extensive talks with about 10-to-15 teams about Mond. Those teams value his experience, ability to lead and win games, Fisher said. Mond helped A&M win 32 games on his way to a school-record 9,661 passing yards with 71 touchdowns and 27 interceptions.

Experience could be especially important to teams who saw Mitch Trubisky and Dwayne Haskins struggle after starting one season in college.

“He does all of the things you need to judge a first-round player,” said Fisher, who has coached Mond since 2018. “He helped change the culture — winning more games, taking a stand, showing he’s a guy who can fight through adversity, took criticism, eliminated any distractions and continued to get better.”

Scouts say Mond has plenty of arm and athleticism but probably looked for the check down too often. They believe he can go vertical and play less conservative. Fisher said Mond’s biggest area for improvement is timing on intermediate throws, but he’s come a long way there. Fisher adds he gave Mond all the responsibility a quarterback could handle, from setting protections to audibles to deciphering third and fourth reads post-snap.

As a senior, Mond completed 188-of-297 passes (63.3 percent) for 2,282 yards and 19 touchdowns and three interceptions. Mond, Florida’s Kyle Trask and Stanford’s Davis Mills are part of the second tier outside the five surefire first-round quarterbacks.

“He’s vastly improved every year,” Fisher said. “Look at the body of work, the competition he’s played against. He really worked his mechanics, has done a great job with his body, his core footwork and balance – that allows him to be so much more efficient. He studies the game, learns very well – an intelligent young man, understands concepts and attacks coverage. He started having fun with it once he grabbed a hold of the offense, where he was the first one on the plane breaking down film with me after a game.”

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If Jaguars want an impact tight end, they’d better act quickly in the draft – Jacksonville Jaguars Blog

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Coach Urban Meyer was pretty clear the Jacksonville Jaguars needed a pass-catching tight end, and since they didn’t sign one in free agency it’s equally clear it will be a priority in the draft.

The Jaguars had better pick one in the first three rounds, though, because recent history shows that it’s hard to find an impact tight end after that. It’s not impossible — Antonio Gates was undrafted, Delanie Walker was a sixth-round pick, and George Kittle was a fifth-round pick, for example — but drafting one early is a much better option.

In looking at the highest-producing tight ends over the past 20 years, 13 of the top 20 in terms of receptions were first- or second-round picks. Tony Gonzalez, the NFL’s all-time receptions leader among tight ends (and third overall), was a first-round pick. Rob Gronkowski, who has the third-most TD catches among tight ends since 2001 with 86, was a second-round pick. Zach Ertz, who holds the single-season record for most receptions by a tight end (116 in 2018), was a second-round pick.

Four more of the top 20 were third-round picks, including Jason Witten, whose 1,228 receptions are second only to Gonzalez among tight ends and rank fourth overall in NFL history, and Travis Kelce, who surpassed 100 catches twice in the past three seasons. Jimmy Graham and Jared Cook also were third-round picks.

Only three of the top 20 players were taken after the third round: Gates, Walker and Owen Daniels (fourth round).

So the Jaguars’ best chance of landing a tight end that can be a major part of the passing game — something that hasn’t happened much around here, and certainly never to the extent of what the players mentioned above have done — is to find one by the end of Day 2 of the draft. The Jaguars have five picks in the first three rounds (two each in the first and second rounds) and are likely taking quarterback Trevor Lawrence first overall.

Florida’s Kyle Pitts will almost assuredly be long gone by the time the Jaguars pick 25th, but there are some other intriguing prospects — such as Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth, Boston College’s Hunter Long and Miami’s Brevin Jordan — that the Jaguars could target in the second or third round. Freiermuth could be the pick to start the second round.

There’s no guarantee about any of those players and the Jaguars shouldn’t force the pick, but if they do have good evaluations on any of them and believe they can be impact players, then it’s better to take them in the second or third rather than waiting at the position or hoping they slide.

The Jaguars’ draft history with tight ends is … not good. They’ve drafted nine since the team’s inception (including Derek Brown in the 1995 expansion draft), but just two earlier than the fourth round: Marcedes Lewis (28th overall in 2006) and Josh Oliver (third round in 2019). Lewis is the franchise’s all-time leader among tight ends in receptions (375), receiving yards (4,502) and TD catches (33), and he’s third overall in the first two categories and second only to wide receiver Jimmy Smith in touchdown catches.

Oliver played in four games and had just three catches in his first two seasons because of injuries, and the Jaguars traded him to Baltimore last month for a conditional seventh-round draft pick in 2022.

Of the remaining nine players in the franchise’s top 10 in terms of tight end receptions, six were either free-agent signees, signed off the street, or acquired via trade: Kyle Brady, Pete Mitchell, James O’Shaughnessy, Julius Thomas, Clay Harbor and Tyler Eifert.

After Lewis, the best tight end the Jaguars have drafted is George Wrighster, a fourth-round pick in 1990 who went on to catch 94 passes for 850 yards and nine touchdowns in his six-year career.

Jaguars tight ends have rarely been prominent parts of the passing game. Only three in franchise history have caught 48 or more passes — an average of just three per game over 16 games — in a single season: Mitchell (52 in 1996), Brady (64 in 2000) and Lewis (58 in 2010 and 52 in 2012).

Three catches per game, even for a run-oriented team, isn’t asking too much. Especially since the Jaguars haven’t exactly had dynamic receivers since Jimmy Smith retired after the 2005 season. They’ve had only three receivers record 1,000-yard seasons since then (Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns in 2015 and DJ Chark Jr. in 2019) and have had only two players with 70 or more catches in a season (Robinson in 2015-16 and Chark in 2019).

Tight end is a priority in the NFL today more than ever and the Jaguars should treat it as such.

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