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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Carolina Panthers on Wednesday released all-time leading rusher Jonathan Stewart, clearing $3,718,750 from the salary cap.

With Monday’s release of veteran defensive end Charles Johnson and safety Kurt Coleman, general manager Marty Hurney has cleared just over $9.6 million in cap space in the past three days. The Panthers now have close to $30 million in cap space.

Stewart, who will turn 31 on March 21, was coming off one of his worst seasons statistically behind an offensive line Hurney regarded as one of the top five in the league. Stewart averaged a career-low 3.4 yards per carry (680 yards on 198 carries), and his total yards were his fewest since 2013, when he was limited by injuries.

His yards per carry ranked 32nd among the 34 running backs who had at least 150 carries last season, ahead of only Adrian Peterson and Ameer Abdullah, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Stewart’s 3.55 yards per touch last season were the fewest by a running back with at least 200 touches in a season since BenJarvus Green-Ellis (3.47) and Rashard Mendenhall (3.49) in 2013.

Stewart ends his career at Carolina, where Hurney selected him in the first round of the 2008 draft, with 7,318 yards. He surpassed DeAngelo Williams last season as the team’s all-time leading rusher.

Williams was released by former general manager Dave Gettleman after the 2014 season.

Stewart recently said he still could be a productive back. But with new offensive coordinator Norv Turner trying to create more opportunities for 2017 first-round pick Christian McCaffrey and what Hurney called a deep draft class at running back, the Panthers opted to move on.

Hurney added that the staff is confident McCaffrey can run more between the tackles even though he is a bit undersized at 5-foot-11 and 205 pounds.

“Norv Turner has come in and we’ve had several meetings with him,” Hurney told ESPN on Tuesday. “We know how he wants the offense to look. Christian McCaffrey is a very versatile running back, and he can do a lot of different things. We have to continue to work through the roles that he will play as well as the roles for all the other guys on the offense.”

In 2018, McCaffrey will try to end the Panthers’ drought without a 1,000-yard rusher. Carolina hasn’t had one since 2009, when both Williams and Stewart broke 1,000 yards. That’s the longest active drought by a team in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The additional cap space could help the Panthers re-sign All-Pro left guard Andrew Norwell and defensive tackle Star Lotulelei.

While Hurney said it was too early to speculate on signing either, in describing his philosophy he immediately pointed to both interior line positions.

“You always have to be very strong on the offensive line and defensive line,” Hurney said. “Our offensive line, I would think, was top five in the league last year. And our defensive line, we were able to put consistent pressure, not only outside but from the inside. That’s very important these days because so many of these quarterbacks get the ball out of their hands so quickly.”

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Houston Texans QB Tyrod Taylor says Deshaun Watson ‘absolutely’ a resource, not a distraction at training camp

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HOUSTON — For the third straight day of training camp, Deshaun Watson did not take part in team drills. Although the Houston Texans’ quarterback stood off to the side for most of practice, newly acquired QB Tyrod Taylor said Watson’s presence has not been a distraction.

Taylor said Watson has “absolutely” been a resource for him as he learns this new team and offense in Houston.

“Me and Deshaun are friends,” Taylor said. “We’ve known each other for a number of years now. We’ve had conversations on the field, off the field. Non-football, about life. Everything has been positive conversations and they’ll continue to be that way.”

Watson reported to training camp Sunday after requesting a trade from the Texans in January. Less than two months later, the first of 23 lawsuits was filed accusing Watson of sexual assault and inappropriate behavior. He faces 22 active lawsuits after one was dropped.

Taylor, who signed with the Texans just hours before the first lawsuit was filed against Watson in March, said his mindset hasn’t changed from when he signed in Houston to the start of training camp.

“My mindset has been the same since I was drafted back in 2011,” Taylor said. “To walk in every day with your best attitude, compete, prepare like a starter and go out and make plays.

Taylor was named the starting quarterback for the Los Angeles Chargers last season, but started only one game before a team doctor accidentally punctured his lung with a pain-killing shot while attempting to treat a rib injury. He was replaced in that game by quarterback Justin Herbert, who kept the starting job and went on to be named the NFL’s Rookie of the Year.

Coach David Culley praised Taylor for being “first guy in this building every morning” and often being “the last guy to leave.”

“And that’s every day,” Culley said. “And that’s just who he is. You won’t ever hear him a whole bunch talking about this or talking about that. He just goes about his business.”

Culley announced that the Texans’ first padded practice will be on Tuesday, but declined to say whether Watson would be in pads for that practice.

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New England Patriots QB Cam Newton says Mac Jones makes good first impression

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Cam Newton said he is still getting to know rookie Mac Jones as they compete for the New England Patriots starting quarterback job, but in sharing his first impression, he cited a phrase made famous by late ESPN SportsCenter anchor Stuart Scott.

“Cool, like the other side of the pillow,” Newton said Friday. “You never know when he’s really down on himself. You don’t really necessarily know when he’s up, either. He’s real cool.”

Newton, 32, said that Jones has even surprised him with his knowledge of hip-hop.

All of which had Jones, 22, laughing after practice.

“That’s a nice compliment. I’d say the same about Cam,” said Jones, the Patriots’ first-round draft pick from the University of Alabama (15th overall). “Obviously, with any relationship and meeting someone new, you have to form the bond and trust. He’s helped me and made it a lot of fun. Your first couple practices as a rookie are going to be hard, so he just tries to stay positive with me. That’s just who Cam is.”

A notable example of that came in Thursday’s practice after Jones had finished a series that didn’t produce the desired results. Newton approached him on the sideline and the two talked it over.

“Hopefully, I can learn from him and try to be like him in some ways and have fun with it,” Jones said. “We’re going to grow together, and we’re going to help each other win games, hopefully.”

At the same time, they’re also in a competition for the top spot on the depth chart, with coach Bill Belichick previously saying that Newton is No. 1 while leaving open the possibility that Jones could make a charge for the job in time.

That’s how Newton has approached things this year, and even before that.

“Ever since I’ve been here, there’s been a quarterback competition,” he said. “I think in essence, that’s the underlying Patriot Way. Every position has a competition there, and the quarterback position is no different.”

Newton said one thing that has helped him this year is that he didn’t have any surgeries in the offseason, which allowed him to spend more time with his family and also on his physical and mental well-being. The result, he said, is that “you feel a little different. More confident.”

Along those lines, Newton said he plans to be judicious when he takes off and runs, in hopes of protecting his 6-foot-5, 245-pound frame.

“I’m getting older. You know, you just have to move a little differently,” he said. “It’s not about proving certain things. We all know what I can do running the football. And if it needs to come to those things, I’m willing to risk it all.

“But yet, if it doesn’t require that, then of course you have to be a little more mental. Because a nick and a bruise where I’m at, it sticks a little longer than just a day and then going about your business.”

Jones has taken off to run a couple of times in practice, but he’s more of a traditional pocket passer. The ball is often out of his hands quickly.

As for what he has learned about Newton, he kept his response lighthearted.

“I like his outfits, for sure,” he said. “I can’t pull off his swag.”

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NFL allowing some unvaccinated players to unmask at outdoor practices

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The NFL is updating its COVID-19 protocols and no longer requiring participating unvaccinated players to wear masks during outdoor practice sessions.

In a memo to the 32 teams sent by the NFL Management Council and obtained by The Associated Press, the league said that beginning with the stretching portion of the workout through the end of practice, such players now can work unmasked. Once the practice concludes, they must put on a mask.

The same will be true for practices in a team’s “bubble,” the indoor practice facility.

Players who are not practicing still must wear masks if they haven’t been vaccinated against the coronavirus. They also must wear face coverings for weight sessions, all outdoor meetings, and the post-practice periods even when family – which the league is terming “cohabitants” – is allowed on the field.

The league also loosened restrictions on what those cohabitants can do after practices. They now are allowed to join players and all Tier 1 and Tier 2 personnel – those who deal directly with players – on the field. Outdoor social events are permitted at the facility, with some restrictions.

For teams with fewer than 90% vaccinated players, the visitors must produce proof of vaccination that teams must verify. Children under 12 will be allowed on the field or for such social events. However, unvaccinated players, staff and children under 12 must wear masks and practice social distancing.

But for teams with more than 90% vaccinated players, there will be no requirements for proof of vaccination. The same restrictions apply to those who are not vaccinated.

Unvaccinated players will be allowed to remove their masks for outdoor media interviews provided physical distance is maintained.

Finally, the league and the NFL Players Association agreed that players experiencing side effects “or an adverse event with the onset of such (COVID-19) symptoms” within the 48 hours after being vaccinated would be treated as a football-related injury. The team physician must “reasonably determine they are causally related to receiving” the vaccine.

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