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The Detroit Lions on Tuesday designated defensive end Ezekiel Ansah as their franchise player for 2018.

The 6-foot-6, 275-pound Ansah had injury issues the last two seasons, but he still played in 27 games for the Lions, making 79 tackles along with 14 sacks — 12 of them in 2017, including six in the final two games.

Ansah, 28, admitted late in the season he had “been dealing with a lot all year.” He had ankle, shoulder and back injuries throughout 2017, rarely practiced in full pads and almost always appeared on Detroit’s injury reports. He said he is “pretty confident,” though, that he can return to his 2015 form, where he had both consistency and production while earning a Pro Bowl berth.

The franchise tag for a defensive end was $16.9 million in 2017, and it is expected to be approximately $17.5 million for the upcoming season.

Ansah can sign the franchise tender at any time, which would fully guarantee the salary and place it all on the current year’s cap. The sides also have until July 16 to agree to a multiyear extension.

Ansah was the No. 5 pick in the 2013 draft out of BYU and immediately became an impact player in the Lions’ 4-3 front as a pass rusher.

After 32 tackles and eight sacks his rookie year and 49 tackles and 7.5 sacks in 2014, Ansah had a breakout season in 2015. He had 47 tackles that season along with 14.5 sacks — enough to earn second-team All-Pro honors by The Associated Press.

ESPN’s Michael Rothstein contributed to this report.

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Jake Fromm, Matt Barkley or both? Bills have decision to make at backup QB – Buffalo Bills Blog

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — Among myriad difficult decisions the Buffalo Bills must make this offseason, their situation at quarterback flies under the radar.

Backup quarterback, that is.

Since arriving in Buffalo as a free agent in October 2018, veteran Matt Barkley has served as Josh Allen‘s backup. In those three seasons, Barkley has completed 53 of 97 passes for 788 yards, three touchdowns and four interceptions, making one spot start in 2018. He is a free agent once again in 2021, and the decision to bring him back is complicated, thanks to the presence of 2020 fifth-round pick Jake Fromm.

The Georgia product, like every other rookie in last year’s class, did not have a normal offseason because of the coronavirus pandemic. Fromm’s year was even more unique, considering he dealt with an offseason controversy and the Bills made him the team’s emergency quarterback, which involved him practicing separately from the rest of the team throughout the week and remaining socially distant inside the Bills’ facility.

“Jake Fromm had the most un-normal year a player could ever have, to have to come in here and be the COVID quarantine quarterback,” Bills general manager Brandon Beane said. “I thought he handled it greatly. In his exit meeting we just praised him for staying true. He would literally be back there hearing the call in his helmet, and while Josh [Allen] or Barkley are going back [in the pocket], he’s going back just like he’s making the throw from 20 yards back. He stays after and throws with the practice squad.

“Really tough year for him, but … it will help him going into next offseason. He’ll be excited to be able to sit in the quarterback room within six or seven feet of the other guys.”

Based on Beane’s explanation, Fromm will return to the team in 2021, which is obvious for a player at a prime position in the second year of a rookie contract. The real question is whether Buffalo believes Fromm is ready to be Allen’s primary backup, or if he needs another year learning alongside Barkley.

Without any game action — even in the preseason — to evaluate, it’s difficult to gauge Fromm’s progress. His coaches and teammates have praised his work ethic in practice, particularly Allen, who was asked about the rookie late in the 2020 season.

“It’s not an easy ask, to put a guy who’s played his entire career and just kind of say, ‘Go over there and stay away from everybody,'” Allen said. “He’s handled it with a lot of pride. He takes pride in his work, and it’s good to see a guy like that go in there and do his job. He’s been a pleasure to be around, he’s grown a lot since he first got here, and he’s been awesome in the quarterback room.”

Buffalo kept only two quarterbacks on its roster in 2019, Allen and Barkley, before drafting Fromm. The Bills will have to clear some salary-cap space to improve their roster this offseason, but will need a stabilizing presence behind Allen.

On Jan. 26, the Bills signed journeyman Davis Webb, who has spent time on their practice squad, to a futures contract, but it might be worth it to bring Barkley back on a one-year deal. It would provide insurance as they evaluate Fromm throughout training camp. Assuming there’s a normal preseason, if Fromm plays well enough to instill confidence in him, the Bills could cut Barkley before the season.

If not, Barkley would spend his fourth straight season with the Bills; or, Buffalo can go in a different direction.

Fromm will obviously return, but Beane can opt for a “high-end two,” as ESPN analyst Matt Bowen puts it — a player like A.J. McCarron, C.J. Beathard or Nick Mullens.

“Knowing where they are right now, as one of the top Super Bowl contenders … do you need to bring in a veteran quarterback to be a high-end two until you believe Jake Fromm is ready?” Bowen said. “If you don’t think he is right now, then you’re going to have to go out and get someone, in my opinion.”

Either way, any decision that involves not bringing Barkley back will weigh heavily on Beane; Barkley and his wife are beloved within the organization.

“What a selfless guy. Some guys are the backup and they’re itching to play,” Beane said. “Matt’s a competitor, he wants to play, but his first thing every day he walks in this door is to help Josh Allen be the best version of himself. And that’s why it’s been so great to have him.

“Without getting into contracts, we’ll see, but very appreciative of Matt, even his wife, Brittany, does a great job of helping wives connect. It’s big for our team culture. So the Barkleys have been a big blessing to the Buffalo Bills. We’ll see [on] the business side where that ends up.”

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From jumbo New York Jet to Andre the Giant

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Matthew Willig first met Dwayne Johnson about a decade ago at an Equinox gym outside Los Angeles. Willig was a fledgling actor, a few years removed from a 14-year career in the NFL trenches. Johnson was … well, The Rock.

The Rock wore a hoodie that day, Willig recalled, surmising the Hollywood megastar wanted to keep a low profile during his workout. They shared a couple of Nautilus machines, and later in the lobby, Willig pulled him aside and requested career advice, the former offensive lineman asking the former defensive lineman about how he could advance his career in show business.

Willig didn’t get a bum’s rush — or a bull rush, for that matter. Johnson was gracious.

More than 50 movie and TV credits later, Willig finally has a place on The Rock’s team. He plays wrestling icon Andre the Giant in the new NBC series “Young Rock,” a biographical comedy that captures Johnson’s life through his formative years. Johnson’s father was a professional wrestler, so the young Rock grew up with some of the sport’s most colorful characters, including Andre René Roussimoff — aka the Eighth Wonder of the World.

“His persona was one thing, [but] he was such a gentle giant, which doesn’t surprise me,” Willig, 52, said in an interview with ESPN. “I’ve been living that life for a long time.”

PODCAST: Matthew Willig talks about his bond with The Rock

During his NFL career, which started with the New York Jets in 1992 and included five other teams, Willig was listed at 6-foot-8, 315 pounds — one of the biggest men in a big-man sport. He came up the hard way, an undrafted free agent from USC who hung around long enough to win a Super Bowl ring with the 1999 St. Louis Rams (even though he didn’t play a single down).

In a sense, he has spent the past three decades auditioning, first in the NFL and now in the cutthroat business of Hollywood — forever a role player.

“I’ve been really fortunate,” Willig said. “I’ve worked hard and I haven’t taken no for an answer, so to speak. I always said, ‘Why not me? Why can’t I be the guy that does it?’ It has worked out pretty well for me. To have just as long a career in this as I did in football, I’m pretty proud of that.”

Often cast as an intimidating muscle guy, Willig is perfect as Andre the Giant, who reportedly was 7-foot-4 and 500-plus pounds during his heyday in the 1970s and 1980s.

It took a lot of research and a lot of eating for Willig. As large as he is, Willig gained 35 pounds in an effort to recreate Andre’s prodigious midsection. (A production secret: He also wore boots with 3-inch lifts.)

To master Andre’s French accent, he worked with a dialect coach. To understand the bond between Andre and The Rock, Willig probed Johnson, asking the star to describe his kinship with the wrestling legend, who died of congestive heart failure in 1993.

“He gave me a really nice, detailed and sweet version of his relationship,” Willig said. “He idolized him in a way and got a lot of advice from him, which we explore in the show and will continue to explore.”

Johnson is a co-creator of the show, which premiered Feb. 16 and explores his upbringing in three different stages — as a 10-year-old known as Dewey (Adrian Groulx), a 15-year-old (Bradley Constant) and a freshman at the University of Miami (Uli Latukefu). The Rock stars as himself in a future setting, 2032, when he’s interviewed by Randall Park upon announcing his candidacy for president of the United States. The interview sets the stage for flashbacks to his childhood.

Willig has a big part in Episode 6, titled “My Day With Andre.” In its review of the show, Rolling Stone says this particular episode is a “warm, bittersweet tale about the lessons that Dewey and Andre the Giant have to teach one another.” Willig, who gets a chance to show off his acting chops, said it includes “some soulful moments, some soft, tender moments” between Andre and the young Rock.

This was a passion project for Johnson, who became choked up during some of the table reads, according to Willig. (Because of the coronavirus pandemic, they rehearsed the script via Zoom, with Johnson in Atlanta and most of the cast and crew shooting in Australia.) Because it’s the story of his life, Johnson took a hands-on approach with the actors.

“Every single one,” Johnson said in an interview with The New York Times. “And I was able to spend some time with them prior to shooting and let them know what I was like during that time, what I thought my priorities were, the times … that I fell on my ass and had to get back up. That was surreal, in and of itself.”

In Episode 1, Dewey, surrounded by his dad, Rocky Johnson (Joseph Lee Anderson) and a bunch of his wrestling friends, drops the F-word: fake. The room goes silent. Andre hoists the horrified boy to eye level and declares, “Does this feel fake?”

Willig stayed in Australia from September to December last year. By the end of the shoot, Willig’s knees were aching because of the weight he gained for the role, and it reminded him of how he felt near the end of his playing career. The role was physically demanding, especially the wrestling scenes. He got a bruise on his rear end because he bounced off the ropes the wrong way. One scene, a Battle Royal with 25 wrestlers in the ring, took more than a week to choreograph.

“A guy his size, with his look, he definitely has a role in Hollywood,” said former Jets quarterback Boomer Esiason, Willig’s teammate for three seasons. “I’m so happy for him. It’s always great when you hear an ex-teammate doing well. [He was] a great teammate, a guy who worked his ass off.”

Willig, who also played for the Atlanta Falcons, Green Bay Packers, Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers, didn’t know what to do with his life when he retired from football in 2005. As he said, “I was in that tweener time. I played 14 years in the NFL, but I didn’t make enough money to where I could just retire. What’s a guy like me going to do?”

He had done some radio shows during his playing days and always felt comfortable in front of a camera, so he decided to pursue acting.

“He always had that funny personality and joking nature,” said ex-linebacker Marvin Jones, a former Jets teammate. “I could 100 percent see him as an actor. Kudos to him.”

Willig has performed in several comedies, including “We’re the Millers” (2013), starring Jennifer Aniston and Jason Sudeikis. Willig plays a Mexican drug lord named One Eye. In the movie, Aniston performs a striptease. In the original script, she’s supposed to dance specifically for Willig’s character. About 20 minutes before shooting the scene, he received a knock at the door of his trailer and was told that part of her dance routine had been eliminated.

Willig was bummed, but he still has fond memories.

“Jennifer couldn’t have been sweeter to me,” he said.

Willig played a small part in “Birds of Prey” (2020), starring Margot Robbie. He also played Lash in the “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D” TV series (2015-16). While keeping his acting skills fresh by appearing in commercials, Willig says his future plans consist of more projects in a producing role.

Of all his screen credits, the one with the strongest emotional connection is “Concussion” (2015), which starred Will Smith. Willig plays the late Justin Strzelczyk, a former Pittsburgh Steelers lineman who battles brain trauma and eventually dies in a fiery car wreck.

It hit home for Willig, who played college ball with Junior Seau and Scott Ross — neither of whom reached their 46th birthday. Seau shot himself in the chest; Ross, part of the concussion lawsuit against the NFL, was found dead in a car. Autopsies later discovered they suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

When Willig went for the part in “Concussion,” he cried during the audition. He forged a friendship with Strzelczyk’s family, which strengthened his attachment to the role.

“It was really an emotional shoot, and I was proud to be a part of it,” Willig said.

His first NFL quarterback remembers watching “Concussion” for the first time.

“When I went to see the movie by myself,” Esiason said, “I said, ‘Damn, that’s Matt Willig.'”



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Cut Carlos Dunlap? Restructure Bobby Wagner? Seahawks create cap room – Seattle Seahawks Blog

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SEATTLE — The Seattle Seahawks could be in much worse shape with their salary cap as the March 17 start of free agency approaches.

Just look at how many teams are currently over the estimated spending limit for 2021.

The NFL has not announced an exact salary cap for next season but has told teams it will be no lower than $180 million. As things stand now, OverTheCap.com and Roster Management System have the Seahawks with less than $8 million in cap space, based on an estimated leaguewide cap that’s slightly above that $180 million floor.

That would cover only about half the cost of a franchise tag for cornerback Shaquill Griffin, let alone whatever it might take to keep any of Seattle’s other free agents or to make any outside additions.

In other words, general manager John Schneider and cap guru Matt Thomas have work to do to free up money before March 17, when every team’s top 51 contracts must be under the cap.

Here are four ways they might — and might not — do that:

Cuts

Defensive end Carlos Dunlap is the most obvious candidate. As good as he was after arriving in a midseason trade from the Cincinnati Bengals — five sacks and six tackles for loss in eight games — the Seahawks can’t afford the $14.1 million he’d count against their cap in the final year of his contract.

Lowering that number with an extension based off his current deal could be easier said than done for a few reasons. Start with Dunlap having already taken one pay cut to facilitate his trade from Cincinnati. As much as he likes Seattle, he might not be willing to sign an extension now that pays him anything less than that — without seeing what his value is on the open market — since it would amount to another pay cut.

And while the Seahawks could theoretically structure an extension that pays him that much in 2021 but with a lower first-year cap charge, that could require them to commit too much guaranteed money over the length of a deal for a player who just turned 32.

Cutting Dunlap would allow him to test the market for the first time in his career and give the Seahawks a chance to sign him to a more team-friendly deal, something they could negotiate from scratch as opposed to from $14.1 million. The lowered NFL salary cap will force other teams to make similar decisions with productive but high-priced players, so the Seahawks would likely have viable alternatives if they cut Dunlap and aren’t able to re-sign him.

He has a $3 million roster bonus due March 21. If he is cut — which seems likely — it would happen before then.

Prediction: Seattle cuts Dunlap and re-signs him at a lower rate.

Restructures

The Seahawks’ current regime has been much less willing than other teams to treat contracts like ATMs, knowing that immediate cap savings created by a restructure will catch up to them down the road. But they’ve restructured deals before by converting base salary into a signing bonus (Doug Baldwin and Russell Wilson in 2017) and might have to do so this year.

Here’s a rough example of how that might work: They could convert $6 million of linebacker Bobby Wagner‘s $13.15 million base salary for 2021 into a signing bonus. That would clear a net of $3 million for 2021, as the $6 million bonus would be spread out over the final two years of Wagner’s contract for cap purposes. Wagner’s 2022 cap number would thus increase by $3 million, which is the long-term downside of such a move.

The negative cap ramifications would likely make the Seahawks less inclined to do this type of restructure again with Wilson, especially under the circumstances. Pushing more cap charges onto future years would make it more difficult to tag or extend him, since negotiations of that size are typically based off the tag. And it would add to the already-whopping amount of dead money the Seahawks would have to eat if they traded Wilson.

Prediction: Seattle restructures Wagner’s deal but not Wilson’s.

Extensions

The Seahawks have several productive players entering the last year of their deals who have a big 2021 cap number that could theoretically be lowered with an extension: wide receiver Tyler Lockett ($13.75 million), left tackle Duane Brown ($13 million), right tackle Brandon Shell ($5.5 million), defensive tackle Jarran Reed ($13.5 million) and safeties Jamal Adams ($9.86 million) and Quandre Diggs ($5.5 million).

But as with Dunlap, creating cap space with an extension for those players is easier said than done. Will they want to give Lockett a big raise knowing DK Metcalf will soon be in line for a massive payday? Will they want to reinvest in Brown past his age-36 season? The Seahawks are optimistic that they’ll extend Adams at some point this offseason, but they might not be able to structure it in a way that provides significant cap relief for 2021.

Prediction: Seattle extends Adams.

Trades

Trading Wilson this offseason is unlikely for several reasons, including the $39 million in dead-money charges it would incur. A post-June 1 trade this year would spread out that dead money over the next two years and create $19 million in 2021 cap space, minus whatever Seattle would have to spend on his replacement.

There have been no indications that the Seahawks are looking to shop any of the other aforementioned names, so this is all hypothetical. But a trade of a player listed above could be doubly beneficial as it would shed salary and recoup needed draft capital and/or a player at another need position. Seattle has no first- or third-round pick and only four in all.

Prediction: Seattle makes a salary-shedding trade, but not with Wilson.

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