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Inside the NFL contract that two Steelers won’t sign – Pittsburgh Steelers Blog

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PITTSBURGH — Alejandro Villanueva considered walking away from football in 2017. He was 28 years old and beginning business school at Carnegie Mellon. His exclusive-rights free-agent status kept him on league-minimum money despite two years as a starter at left tackle.

So in 2017, Villanueva worked out with the Pittsburgh Steelers but didn’t sign his exclusive-rights tender. Hours before the training camp reporting window expired, the Steelers signed him to a four-year, $24 million deal.

“I can’t say if it’s better to sign now or later,” said Villanueva during this week’s minicamp, entering his third year on that deal. “But betting on yourself, in this business, usually works.”

Intentionally or not, Villanueva set a precedent in the Steelers locker room that at least one player is following.

Steelers cornerback Mike Hilton finds himself in a similar situation, an exclusive rights free agent (ERFA) who refuses to sign the tender, at least for now.

The two have discussed the matter, Hilton said, and though Hilton isn’t divulging the nature of those talks, he calls Villanueva “a guy I can go to with questions.”

These are shared experiences of a tapped market.

ERFAs are players with expired contracts and two years or fewer of accrued NFL seasons. Teams can retain them on a one-year tender at a low number (around $645,000) with no negotiation and no chance for the player to shop his services. Right tackle Matt Feiler, who started 10 games last season, signed his tender this offseason.

Restricted free agents have three years of experience, and players get a bigger amount for that experience (guard B.J. Finney is set to make $3.095 million on a second-round tender).

This is a way for owners to keep good undrafted players before they can cash out. Hilton wants out of that scenario after two productive years as a slot corner for Pittsburgh.

But what Villanueva pulled off is “very rare,” said former NFL agent Brodie Waters, a consultant who runs ESPN’s Roster Management System. He estimates fewer than 10 players under the current collective bargaining agreement have landed new deals during their ERFA year.

“The player has zero leverage other than retiring,” Waters said. “It would be extremely rare for the Steelers to do anything unless they identify they really want him, and he’s willing to take a below-market deal. If he’s played two years, they’ve got him for two more years. There’s not a lot of incentive to do something.”

Hilton’s situation is complicated. He tackles well and ranks highly by Pro Football Focus for his play. He also suffered a few late-season struggles that included scout-team work in Week 15.

Villanueva’s premium position and no viable options behind him likely helped his cause. And perhaps the Steelers knew signing him two years later would cost twice the amount. Villanueva, a Pro Bowler, considered that possibility before signing his deal.

Hilton has thought about that, too, but he knows where he wants to be.

“It’s too early to see what’s gonna happen, but I want to show the team I want to be here and want to be a part of this organization,” said Hilton, who doesn’t have plans to retire. “I wouldn’t say it’s a real tough situation because at the end of the day, it’s still a nice opportunity. As players, you feel like of course you want to earn more. Either way it works out, I’m excited. Hopefully things work out in the long run, but if not, I’ll do my best to go out there and help this team win.”

Still, Villanueva feels for Hilton. He knows firsthand uncertainty over a contract is “not fun.” Plus, as a former practice squad player, he knows Hilton didn’t get an accrued season toward free agency for his 2016 work on multiple practice squads.

Villanueva believes the Steelers know that’s a tough predicament for good players.

“You don’t want to have a guy in the locker room who’s not happy with his contract, especially when he has the backing of his teammates,” Villanueva said. “He’s been about it the right way. He’s shown up every single day, not making it a big deal. For that, he gets a lot of respect from all of us.”

The Steelers will soon show if Villanueva’s deal was an anomaly or a new precedent. Hilton is prepared for anything.

“It’s just part of the business,” Hilton said. “There are always steps to the business. Sometimes you have to fall in line with how it’s going and eventually things will work out in your favor.”

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Saints rule out starting LBs A.J Klein (knee), Kiko Alonso (thigh) vs. 49ers

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METAIRIE, La. — The New Orleans Saints have ruled out two of their starting linebackers before Sunday’s critical NFC showdown vs. the San Francisco 49ers.

Strongside linebacker A.J Klein (knee) and middle linebacker Kiko Alonso (thigh) were both injured during last Thursday’s win at Atlanta. The timing is especially unfortunate because the 49ers have the NFL’s No. 2-ranked rushing offense at 148.0 yards per game.

And because both teams are 10-2, Sunday’s game could wind up determining the NFC’s top seed and home-field advantage.

The Saints’ run defense, meanwhile, ranks No. 3 in the league, allowing just 88.6 yards per game. They will likely count on veteran backup Craig Robertson as one replacement starter. Backups Stephone Anthony and newly signed Manti Te’o could also help fill the void.

On a positive injury note, the Saints’ standout left tackle Terron Armstead is listed as questionable after he returned to practice on a limited basis all week with his ankle injury. Even if he is not ready to return yet Sunday, it’s a good sign that he will be back soon.

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Giants expect Golden Tate, Evan Engram to face Eagles

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — New York Giants wide receiver Golden Tate was cleared from the concussion protocol and will play Monday night against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Tate, who is second on the Giants with four receiving touchdowns, missed last week’s loss to the Green Bay Packers. He is set to play his first game with quarterback Eli Manning after missing the first four weeks of the season for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.

Manning is expected to return to the starting lineup for the first time since Week 2 in place of an injured Daniel Jones, who has a high ankle sprain.

Manning should have a full complement of weapons at his disposal. Tight end Evan Engram is also expected to return after missing three games with a foot injury.

It would mark the first time this season that all the Giants’ pass-catching weapons (Tate, Engram, running back Saquon Barkley and wide receiver Sterling Shepard) are on the field together. The Giants (2-10) are trying to snap an eight-game skid.

Tate returns just in time to face his former team. He was traded from the Detroit Lions to the Philadelphia Eagles midway through last season. He signed with the Giants this offseason as a free agent after catching the game-winning touchdown in a playoff win for the Eagles earlier this year.

The veteran receiver has been productive in his seven games with the Giants. Tate has 36 catches for 450 yards and four touchdowns.

But he was injured late in a loss to the Chicago Bears. He was diagnosed with a concussion the day after that game, in which he took several big hits. The Giants say the concussion occurred when his head slammed into the ground while making a touchdown grab late in the fourth quarter. He remained in the game for the final drive.

Engram leads the Giants with 44 receptions. He also has 467 yards and three touchdown grabs in eight games.

But Engram hasn’t played since hurting his foot late in a Week 9 loss to the Dallas Cowboys. He recently said it was a two-to-four week injury.

Engram has missed three games and had the bye week to recover. He’s been a limited participant in practice this week, but told ESPN he’s done way more than the past few weeks.

“All indications are he’ll be ready to go,” coach Pat Shurmur said earlier Friday.

The same can’t be said for Jones. He didn’t practice Friday even though he ditched the walking boot on his right foot. He spent most of his time on the sideline working with a trainer. Shurmur considered it “very unlikely” the rookie quarterback would play despite all the Giants’ weapons finally being together.

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Colts to be without Adam Vinatieri, T.Y. Hilton vs. Bucs

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INDIANAPOLIS — Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri has been ruled out for Sunday’s game at Tampa Bay because of a left knee injury, coach Frank Reich said Friday.

Vinatieri, who said he started feeling pain in his knee last week, did not practice Thursday or Friday after being a limited participant Wednesday. It will be the first game he has missed due to injury since 2009.

Reich said they have not talked about putting Vinatieri on the season-ending injured reserve list, instead classifying the kicker as being “week to week” with four games left in the regular season.

Vinatieri, 46, dealt with a similar knee problem during training camp.

He has made a career-low 68% of his field goal attempts this season and missed 14 kicks — eight field goals and six extra points. Two of Vinatieri’s misses — against the Chargers and Steelers — cost the Colts games.

Chase McLaughlin, who the Colts claimed off waivers Wednesday, will handle the kicking duties. McLaughlin has played in seven games this season, four with the Chargers and three with the San Francisco 49ers. He was 13-for-17 on field goals and made all 15 of his extra point attempts.

The Colts, who are on a two-game losing streak, also ruled out receiver T.Y. Hilton (calf) and cornerback Kenny Moore (ankle) for Sunday’s game.

The Colts will get some help on offense, as running back Marlon Mack (hand), who has rushed for a team-high 862 yards, and rookie receiver Parris Campbell (hand) are expected to return, barring any setback after missing two and four games, respectively.

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