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Bills superfan Pancho Billa dies of cancer at 39

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Buffalo Bills super fan Ezra Castro, who was known as Pancho Billa for his game-day outfit that includes a sombrero and facemask in the NFL team’s red, white and blue colors, died Tuesday after battling cancer.

The 39-year-old mortician from Dallas was diagnosed with spinal cancer in 2017. He had been hospitalized at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center since April.

“Our hearts are broken as we have lost our dear brother Ezra “Pancho Billa” this morning,” his family said in a statement. “We are thankful and forever grateful for all the love and support during this journey. Ezra was surrounded by family and loved ones. At this time we ask for privacy as we mourn our loss.”

Bills co-owner Kim Pegula tweeted that Castro was “a tremendous inspiration for our team.”

Castro was also beloved by the Bills’ players. Defensive tackle Harrison Phillips delivered a photo signed by the entire team to Castro last December after one of the Bills’ victories. And Ed Oliver, the team’s first-round pick in last month’s draft, paid a visit to Castro in the hospital soon after he was selected.

Castro attended numerous Bills games on the road and at New Era Field in Orchard Park, New York, earning him the honor of being named the inaugural member of the Buffalo Fan Wall of Fame.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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Brew-haha — Yelich, Rodgers chug at Bucks game

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Green Bay Packers lineman David Bakhtiari was back to his beer-chugging ways courtside at the Milwaukee Bucks‘ NBA playoff game Thursday night — and this time he got a pair of local MVPs to join in.

Neither Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers nor Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich could down a beer quite as quickly as Bakhtiari, though they tried their best.

While being shown on the video screens at the Fiserv Forum, Bakhtiari put back two beers in a matter of seconds then pointed toward Rodgers.

The two-time NFL MVP couldn’t get through his entire beer in one go, and Bakhtiari, who has slammed beers during other games in the Bucks’ playoff run this season, proceeded to show him how it’s done with a third cold one.

Rodgers did offer somewhat of an explanation, implying in a tweet that he would prefer a different libation.

Later in the game, a fan wearing a Bakhtiari jersey was shown downing a beer on the big screen, prompting the lineman to empty a can into his own mouth.

Soon after, Yelich — the reigning National League MVP who was seated next to Bakhtiari — got in on the fun by finishing his own beer, much to the delight of the crowd.

Yelich was a bit faster than Rodgers, but the quarterback wasn’t impressed and indicated that Yelich’s cup had been slightly less than full.

Their antics couldn’t inspire the Bucks to a win, however, as the Toronto Raptors prevailed 105-99 to take a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference finals.



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Predicting the next NFL players who could force contract standoffs

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What Le’Veon Bell did in 2018 was historic. And when someone does something historic, it’s natural to wonder who will be the next to try it.

Sitting out an entire NFL season to make sure he reached free agency healthy and scored the kind of contract Bell believed he deserved was a gambit few saw coming, and it challenged many of the commonly held perceptions of an NFL player’s individual power in the marketplace. In an economic structure that allows teams to delay long-term contracts well beyond the point at which players have earned them, Bell exerted the leverage he had (the withholding of services) to deny the Pittsburgh Steelers what they wanted.

This was a win for other players, if they were paying attention, because it proved to them (and to their teams) that it’s possible for a player to make good on a threat to sit out if he doesn’t get what he wants. The next time a player or his agent suggests that he might skip the season, we’ll only have to go back to 2018 to find an example of one who did just that.

With that in mind, Pittsburgh could have a similar problem on its hands in a couple of years with another star second-round pick. Standout wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is entering his third NFL season and is vastly underpaid. He can’t make an issue of it this year or next, because unless a player has put in four years’ worth of service time, he has to report within 30 days of the start of the season or lose a year of credit toward free agency. But the Steelers and their fans certainly hope Smith-Schuster continues to play at a level that keeps his contract looking like a steal.

Now, every circumstance is different, and many players likely wouldn’t want to subject themselves to the public heat Bell absorbed. We don’t know this far out whether Smith-Schuster is the kind of guy who would make a major issue out of his rookie contract in its final years or chafe against a franchise tag as Bell did. Just Wednesday, Smith-Schuster made a point of announcing he didn’t plan to make trouble. As one person I interviewed while researching this story pointed out, being a lifelong Steeler carries post-career financial benefits that Bell won’t get to enjoy the way guys like Franco Harris do.

All of that said, the NFL’s economic structure remains one in which great young players often are playing for far less than what the market would say they’re worth. And as long as that’s the case, some players and agents are going to try to see what they can do to get around it. We took a look at some players who could, over the next few years, be the next Le’Veon Bell and force a team’s hand by sitting out. This is a partial list.

Jump to a player:
Clowney | Gordon | Byron Jones | Michael Thomas
Ngakoue | Smith-Schuster | Kamara


Pick: No. 1 in 2014

For the most part, first-round picks don’t fit into this category because they get paid so much up front. Clowney already has pocketed more than $34.5 million from his fully guaranteed four-year rookie contract and its fifth-year team option. This is his sixth season, and the Texans have elected to franchise him at the cost of $15.967 million. Assuming he has saved well and invested wisely, Clowney never has to work another day in his life.

Unlike a lot of the other guys on this list, he can afford to sit out the season if he doesn’t want to play on the franchise tag. The problem is, Houston could franchise him again next year (an option that wasn’t financially realistic for the Steelers with Bell, since they already had franchised him twice). So if he doesn’t like the tag, Clowney’s best hope is that the Texans do for him what the Kansas City Chiefs did for Dee Ford and the Seattle Seahawks did for Frank Clark: Trade him to a team that will give him the contract he wants. Clowney is really the only star player from the 2014 draft who hasn’t yet scored a long-term deal, so we put him in here because his situation is front and center and could be an issue this summer.


Pick: No. 15 in 2015

Gordon falls into the “underpaid” category because of his position. He has averaged $2.67 million a year on his four-year rookie deal and is scheduled to play this season on a $5.605 million team option. (The rookie wage scale doesn’t do any favors for running backs or safeties picked outside of the top 10.) Gordon has averaged 1,457 scrimmage yards and 13 touchdowns a season over the past three years, and he obviously would have made much more than $5.6 million had he hit the free-agent market this offseason.


Pick: No. 27 in 2015

Jones’ case is an odd one. He is playing cornerback for the Cowboys now, but his fifth-year-option salary for this season is the safety number of $6.26 million, as opposed to the corner number of $9.07 million. This is because Jones played the bulk of his third-season snaps at safety, and that’s how they decide your position for purposes of the fifth-year option. (Cleveland’s Damarious Randall, a safety who used to play cornerback, is in the opposite position, which helps his leverage in contract talks with the Browns.)

The Cowboys would like to extend Jones, and they likely will, after they address the Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper situations. But it hurts Jones that the starting point for negotiations (that is, his current salary) is lower than it would be if it reflected the position he currently plays.


Pick: No. 47 in 2016

First-rounders from 2016 such as Joey Bosa, Ezekiel Elliott and Jalen Ramsey could create contract-related messes for their teams in the coming years, but let’s leave those guys out for now because they were picked very high and already have made a bunch of money.

Thomas is in a group with a real gripe. Unlike the first three guys on this list, he was not a first-round pick, but rather a second-rounder in 2016. This means the Saints don’t get a fifth-year option on him, and Thomas has only one year left on his rookie deal. No player in NFL history has caught more passes in his first three seasons than Thomas.

Julio Jones, Antonio Brown, DeAndre Hopkins and Mike Evans are the only players who have caught more passes than Thomas over the past three seasons.

Those guys make an average of $16 million per year. Thomas is scheduled to earn $1.148 million this year, and it’s not even guaranteed. What would you do if you knew you were worth 14 times more than you’re making? I’m guessing “show up for voluntary offseason workouts” isn’t part of the answer, though Thomas has been doing just that. It would be a major shock if New Orleans didn’t make Thomas a lucrative extension offer this summer. The question is whether that offer will be good enough to convince Thomas to take the bird in the hand or whether he wants to bet on himself, wait it out and try free agency.

Atlanta Falcons linebacker Deion Jones ($1.07 million) and Chicago Bears center Cody Whitehair ($1.026 million) are two other 2016 second-rounders whose salaries fail to reflect their roles and production levels.


Pick: No. 69 in 2016

Ngakoue has 29.5 sacks in his three NFL seasons. Only nine players have more, and their average annual salary is $17.14 million per year. Ngakoue is scheduled to earn $2.025 million this year, which actually is more than his original rookie contract called for. Players picked in the third round or later who participate in at least 35 percent of their team’s offensive or defensive snaps in two of their first three seasons get performance-based salary escalators in their fourth seasons, and Ngakoue fell into that category. (Note: Second-round picks do not get the escalators, providing yet another gripe for those in the Thomas/Jones/Whitehair group discussed above.) But even with the bump, Ngakoue is earning maybe one-ninth of his market value this year, unless the Jags extend him.

Other third-through-seventh-round picks from 2016 who fall into Ngakoue’s category include (but are not limited to) Tennessee Titans safety Kevin Byard, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Matthew Judon, New England Patriots offensive lineman Joe Thuney and, of course, Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott. And don’t forget about Indianapolis Colts backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett, who is a fascinating case unto himself. Franchising him isn’t going to be an option as he sits behind Andrew Luck. What kind of deal could he get from the Colts if he really wanted to force their hands?


Pick: No. 62 in 2017

We mentioned Smith-Schuster earlier, but the year in which he could “pull a Le’Veon” would be 2022. This assumes he continues his high-level production and that the Steelers franchise him in 2021 and again in 2022, mirroring Bell’s path. Smith-Schuster is in line to be the Steelers’ No. 1 wide receiver with Antonio Brown gone. Even with Brown on the team last season, Smith-Schuster finished fifth in the league in receiving yards. He is scheduled to make nearly $850,000 this year and $1.04 million in 2020. And remember, as a second-rounder, he is not eligible for performance-based escalators. Another 1,400-yard season would make Smith-Schuster the league’s best bargain. Except for maybe this next guy.


Pick: No. 67 in 2017

It’s a weird quirk of the system that Kamara, the third pick of the 2017 third round, will end up making more on his rookie deal than Smith-Schuster, the 30th pick of that year’s second round. Once the performance-based escalator kicks in, Kamara’s 2020 salary will jump from $977,500 to more than $2 million. A nice bump, but nowhere close to the salaries of Todd Gurley II, Ezekiel Elliott or Julio Jones, the only players with more yards from scrimmage than Kamara over the past two seasons. (Gurley is the only player who has scored more touchdowns.) Even with Elliott on his rookie deal, that trio averages $11.6 million a year. Kamara will average maybe $1.5 million over the next two years. Just like Smith-Schuster and anyone else drafted in 2017, Kamara has to wait until after this season to negotiate a new contract. If the Saints can’t get him extended next offseason, you wonder if Kamara decides to create a problem.

Other third-through-seventh-round picks from 2017 who could fall into Kamara’s category include Steelers running back James Conner, Bears safety Eddie Jackson, Bears running back Tarik Cohen and San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle. You could even add Denver Broncos running back Phillip Lindsay to this particular list of names to watch, as he was undrafted in 2018 and rushed for more than 1,000 yards as a rookie. Undrafted players only sign three-year deals, so Lindsay’s contract runs out at the same time as those picked after the first round in 2017. If he goes over 1,000 again in Year 2 … who knows?

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Randall Cobb might feel ‘lost’ with Cowboys, but he doesn’t look it – Dallas Cowboys Blog

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FRISCO, Texas — Tuesday was strange for Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Randall Cobb.

“I felt like a little kid, lost,” he said.

For eight seasons, Cobb was a member of the Green Bay Packers. He had the same coach, the same quarterback, the same everything. Down to the minute, he knew where he had to be and for how long when it came to any offseason activities.

Cobb, 28, has been a member of the Cowboys for a little more than two months, and Tuesday was the team’s first organized team activity this offseason.

“I didn’t know where to go after each drill, each station,” Cobb said. “So I’m just looking around, seeing where the other receivers are and finding my way around.”

He is still finding his way around the Cowboys’ offense, too.

Cobb knew coach Mike McCarthy’s offense so well in Green Bay and understood what quarterback Aaron Rodgers wanted so much that very little threw him off. With the Cowboys, he is learning coordinator Kellen Moore’s offense and starting to understand what quarterback Dak Prescott wants.

“Since I’ve been here, we’re going through the installations, and I’m having a little bit of a mental challenge as far as so many of the same plays being different calls,” Cobb said. “Just trying to get more acclimated to the playcalling here, and making sure I’m using the right terminology so I’m on the same page with everybody.”

It’s not like the Cowboys did not know Cobb before signing him to a one-year deal. Jason Garrett coached him at the Pro Bowl. In five games against the Cowboys (three in the regular season and two in the playoffs), Cobb caught 34 passes for 341 yards and a touchdown. He had the game-clinching reception off a deflected pass in the 2014 divisional-round game.

“We’ve seen him do a lot of stuff, and that’s one of the things we liked about him was his versatility and how they used him a lot of different ways and a lot of spots, just doing different things,” Garrett said. “That’s one of the things that drew us to him, but there’s no question that being around a guy on a practice field and seeing him in real life up close gives you an added benefit. And a lot of those things, those perceptions that we [to] had get reaffirmed, ‘He actually can do that. This is the quickness that he has getting out of a break, or his ability to run certain routes.’ Those are all really positive things. You see them on tape, you get them reaffirmed when you see him in real life.”

After missing seven games last season because of a concussion and hamstring strain, Cobb knew his time with the Packers was coming to an end. He caught just 38 passes for 383 yards and two touchdowns, his lowest production since 2013, when he played in only six games.

He did not know the Cowboys could be a potential destination until Cole Beasley left for the Buffalo Bills.

Though before that happened, Cobb planted a seed in Prescott’s ear at the NFL Honors program the night before the Super Bowl, telling the quarterback to “come get me.”

“Now a couple of practices in with him, [Cobb is an] incredibly smart guy,” Prescott said. “I think that’s going to be the best thing that helps. Just picking everything up and get going to be a big-time player in this offense.”

If Cobb feels out of place at times learning the offense, Prescott has not seen it.

Their discussions are detailed. Cobb wants to know where he is in the quarterback’s progressions on certain plays so he can time up his footwork better. Prescott wants to know where Cobb likes the ball if a defender is on his inside or outside shoulder; whereas, with younger receivers, the conversations start with the depth of each route.

That type of chemistry took time with Rodgers, but Cobb has come away impressed with Prescott.

“He’s very passionate. He’s a hard worker. He definitely puts the time in,” Cobb said. “I mean he’s a physical specimen. You look at him, he’s strong. He’s big. He’s fast. He can make the throws. He can make the plays, provide a threat in the running game. He extends plays well. … I’m hoping to get on the same page with him and be able to make some plays for him.”

The Cowboys have six more OTAs, a three-day minicamp and a summerlong training camp and preseason to work out the final details.

During Wednesday’s OTA that was open to the media, Cobb certainly did not look like a receiver finding his way. He showed quickness in the slot, catching a quick slant from Prescott. He worked through traffic after a catch. He even went through special-teams drills as a gunner, which is somewhat surprising for a receiver entering his ninth season.

“Let him do everything,” Prescott said. “I mean, honestly, put him in the backfield, put him outside, put him inside, ask him to block, ask him to take a jet sweep. I mean, he’s got film doing all those things and doing all those things really well. I think if we’re not utilizing all of his athleticism and just his versatility, then we’re cheating him as a player and we’re not getting everything we want as an offense.”

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