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Justin Herbert helps draft cause with MVP showing at Senior Bowl

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MOBILE, Ala. — Justin Herbert might have had more at stake than any other player at the Senior Bowl this week, with the Oregon quarterback trying to prove he is worthy of a top-10 draft pick.

He responded by being named as both the “Practice Player of the Week” and the MVP of Saturday’s game.

Herbert’s South team wound up losing the game 34-17. But he staked them a 7-0 lead while completing his first seven passes, including a 16-yard touchdown pass to Florida running back Lamical Perine on the game’s opening drive. Herbert also showed off his legs with a 19-yard run on that opening drive.

He completed 9 of 12 passes for 83 yards with one TD and no interceptions and ran the ball three times for 22 yards before calling it a day.

“We could’ve won. That’s one thing that could’ve gone better. But I had a lot of fun this week,” said Herbert, who said his main focus between now and the combine and his pro day is “getting better.”

“I love competing, and that’s one of the things I wanted to come here and do,” Herbert said. “It was so much fun, it was such a great learning experience, and I’ve really enjoyed it.”

Herbert said at the beginning of the week that he was well aware of how the Senior Bowl boosted the profile of recent top QB picks like Carson Wentz, Baker Mayfield and Daniel Jones. But he insisted that more than anything, he was honored to be invited because he grew up watching this game.

“Not a whole lot of people get this invite. To come here, it’s special,” Herbert said.

It has to feel even more special after the way this week went. The 6-foot-6, 227-pounder showed off his big arm throughout the practice week. But he also showed consistency and drew praise for his leadership with a group of new teammates — something Herbert said he knew NFL teams wanted to see after he had a reputation for being a quiet personality.

The biggest knock on Herbert is that he needs to do a better job of working through his progressions. But he did as much as he could in this type of format to help his stock.

ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay wrote that Herbert “truly established himself as the best quarterback on the field all three days,” with perhaps the “defining portion” coming during the two-minute drills on Thursday.

Draft analysts have been mixed on Herbert’s potential as anywhere from a top-five overall pick to later in Round 1. This week should only help his case.

Herbert’s running ability hasn’t always been a huge part of his game. But he continued to flash it Saturday after he opened eyes with three rushing TDs in the Ducks’ Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin.

“In this day and age in the NFL, you’ve got to be able to make some plays with your feet and be able to create a little bit,” said Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor, who coached the South team this week.

It was also a solid week for Utah State quarterback Jordan Love, who was selected as the North team’s top practice quarterback of the week. Love, who is considered more of a high-risk, high-reward prospect after throwing for 20 TDs and 17 interceptions in 2019, wanted to prove he is a bona fide first-round draft pick in this showcase alongside a higher level of talent.

“I didn’t really know what to expect coming into the week and had an open mind. But it was a good week,” said Love, who said he believed he was able to answer teams’ questions about his ability to learn and execute a pro-style offense since the one he ran at Utah State was “not really a NFL offense.”

Love completed 4 of 6 passes for just 26 yards in Saturday’s game. But he barely missed connecting on an effortless deep ball.

Meanwhile, Washington State‘s Anthony Gordon had the most prolific day of any quarterback despite being the third North QB into the lineup.

Gordon finished as the winning team’s MVP Saturday after completing 8 of 12 passes for 69 yards and two TDs.

“Like my career at Washington State, I spent a lot of time waiting. But when it was my time, I was ready,” said Gordon, who sat behind future NFL QBs Luke Falk and Gardner Minshew in college.

Gordon also honored another former Cougars teammate this week. Gordon switched to jersey No. 3 to honor Tyler Hilinski, who died by suicide in January 2018 and would have been a senior himself this past season.

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49ers dominate Giants despite missing 10 projected starters – San Francisco 49ers Blog

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Don’t go kicking crumbs of rubber on the San Francisco 49ers‘ season just yet.

The injury-ravaged Niners entered Sunday’s game against the New York Giants with 10 projected starters out because of injury. And they were returning to the artificial surface of MetLife Stadium, where many of those injuries occurred.

No matter, the 49ers dominated the struggling Giants from beginning to end, surging to a 36-9 victory and improving to 2-1. Yes, it was just another win against another lowly New York team, but that shouldn’t mean the Niners get any less credit for what they did on their two-game New York swing.

On Sunday, the Niners were missing starters in defensive end Dee Ford (back), quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (ankle), linebacker Dre Greenlaw (quadriceps), tight end George Kittle (knee), running back Raheem Mostert (knee), receiver Deebo Samuel (foot), center Weston Richburg (patellar tendon), cornerback Richard Sherman (calf) and defensive linemen Nick Bosa (ACL) and Solomon Thomas (ACL). They were also without running back Tevin Coleman (knee) and receivers Jalen Hurd (ACL) and Richie James Jr. (hamstring).

For as long and daunting as that list looks, the only players who have been ruled out for the year are Bosa, Thomas and Hurd. While those are important losses, especially Bosa, the Niners should be getting most everybody else back at some point in the near future. After Week 6, center Weston Richburg, defensive end Ronald Blair III and defensive lineman Jullian Taylor can return from the physically unable to perform list.

With winnable games against the Philadelphia Eagles and Miami Dolphins the next two weeks at Levi’s Stadium, the Niners have every reason to believe they can be 4-1 when the Los Angeles Rams come calling on Oct. 18. By then, they could be back closer to full strength and ready to prove they are still a legitimate contender.

Count them out at your own peril.

QB breakdown: Backup quarterback Nick Mullens looked right at home stepping in for Garoppolo, completing 25 of 36 passes for 343 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. His passer rating was 108.9 and the Niners did not punt or have a turnover. You can’t ask for much more from your backup, and the Niners have to feel good about him starting again if Garoppolo’s ankle doesn’t allow him to return next week.

Buy Brandon Aiyuk‘s breakout performance: Perhaps it’s an overstatement to call Aiyuk’s day a “breakout” but there were some encouraging signs that the rookie receiver is starting to get comfortable. On a second-half drive to put the game away, Aiyuk had three catches for 39 yards and a 19-yard touchdown run. He finished with 70 yards on five catches and three carries for 31 yards with that score.

With reinforcements on the way, Aiyuk’s target share probably will remain about the same, but he’s earned the right to remain a prominent part of the offense moving forward.

Troubling trend: Long-snappers don’t often get more reliable than the Niners’ Kyle Nelson but he had a day to forget. Nelson’s snaps were all over the place on field goals and extra points. Holder Mitch Wishnowsky did well to give kicker Robbie Gould the chance to get most of his kicks off, but Nelson had several that were either too high or too low. One of those resulted in a missed field goal for Gould. Another meant a missed extra point. Backup offensive lineman Justin Skule replaced Nelson as the snapper on the team’s final extra point.

The good news is that Nelson’s woes didn’t hurt the team. But whatever the issue, it’s something the 49ers will have to take a look at this week to figure out if Nelson can return to form.

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Rob Gronkowski of Tampa Bay Buccaneers marvels at Tom Brady’s play

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski doesn’t believe father time has caught up with longtime teammate Tom Brady.

In fact, he doesn’t think it has come close to affecting the 43-year-old signal caller, who tossed three first-half touchdowns in the Bucs’ 28-10 win over the Broncos on Sunday in Denver. Gronkowski also believes Tampa Bay’s offense is just starting to scratch the surface of what it can do.

“There are people that have talked garbage about him since I started playing with him 10 years ago, saying he didn’t have anything left in the tank — that is simply not true,” Gronkowski said. “Just the way that he can air the ball out and put a dime where he needs to … I just feel like he can do it. It is like he isn’t even 43 years old.”

Brady completed passes to eight different receiving targets Sunday, going 25-of-38 for 297 passing yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions — his first Bucs game without a pick. When asked if this was Brady’s best performance so far as a Buccaneer, coach Bruce Arians said, “I think so far for sure. We put a lot on him today, and he delivered.”

Two particular passes stood out as evidence against Brady critics who believe he has lost his touch and can’t throw the deep ball. One was a 33-yard pass (26.6 air yards) to tight end O.J. Howard, and the other was a 47-yarder (42 air yards) to receiver Scotty Miller.

On the dime to Howard, there were just 0.53 yards of separation between him and the nearest defender, Josey Jewell, when the pass arrived, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Since the NFL began tracking separation in 2017, Brady has had only one other completion of 25-plus air yards with 0.5 yards or less of separation, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

On the pass to Miller, there were just 0.83 yards of separation between him and the nearest defender, Justin Simmons. That was the first time in Next Gen tracking that Brady completed a pass of 40-plus air yards with less than 1 yard of separation. The last time Brady completed a pass of 40 or more air yards was in Week 1 of last season, and he was 0-for-5 on such passes entering Sunday.

“Just the way he prepares, week in and week out, the way he takes care of himself, the way he goes out to the practice field to make sure that he’s on-point — seeing what I see, from day in and day out, coming to practice, coming to games prepared, mentally and physically, and just doing everything he needs to do so he can make those [tight-window] passes,” Gronkowski said. “And those passes are incredible. Just the way that he puts them in there, there’s not even any separation … he just lays it there so only the receiver can make a play — it’s just unbelievable. I think he has a lot left, even more, in the tank.”

Brady acknowledged that some of that risk-taking is due to his increasing level of confidence running Arians’ offense and improving chemistry and trust with teammates. They didn’t have an offseason together and spent training camp trying to play catch-up, although members of the coaching staff think the private workouts Brady hosted with teammates at Tampa’s Berkeley Prep helped enormously.

“We’re getting there. It’s a long process,” Brady said. “This would have been our third preseason game. Still a lot to learn, there’s a lot to grow, there’s a lot of room for improvement. I know everyone feels that way. We’ve gotta get to know each other. We’ve gotta understand kinda what we’re trying to do and what we’re trying to accomplish, and then make it happen. We’re only gonna, I think, make improvements as we keep going.”

Brady wasn’t the only one who managed to defy some critics.

After managing just two catches for 11 receiving yards in Weeks 1 and 2 combined, Gronkowski went 6-of-7 on his targets from Brady for 48 receiving yards against the Broncos.

“Not every week you’re gonna get targets your way because you never know how the game’s gonna go, but today, it went that way, where I had a lot of targets, and it just felt good to get involved,” said Gronkowski, who called himself a “blocking tight entering” in the days leading up to Sunday’s game. “I just knew that if I kept week in, week out just practicing hard, doing what we need to do, it was going to click. I’ve been in the league for a while, and there are some games where you just don’t get any looks, and then there are some games where you get a lot of looks. There’s some games where I’m just not clicking and everything’s just not clicking.

“I’m here just getting better week in, week out and fix the problems when there [are] problems and things aren’t going right. That’s the grind of the football season. I did definitely have the faith that I was going to get involved in the passing game, and it happened today. I truly believe that we can keep getting better.”

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Cleveland Browns have first winning record in six years

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CLEVELAND — Finally, the Cleveland Browns have a winning record again.

With a 34-20 victory over Washington on Sunday, the Browns moved to 2-1, giving them a record above .500 for the first time in six years.

Cleveland had gone 90 consecutive weeks without a winning record, which was by far the longest active streak in the NFL. The Browns were last above .500 going into Week 15 of the 2014 season, when they were 7-6, then lost their final three games.

Over the next three seasons, Cleveland would win just four games combined.

“First and foremost, this is a football town,” Baker Mayfield said. “They deserve to have a great franchise and a great team, but we are worried about right now. Like I said before the season started, it is about building that culture, bringing the right guys in and pushing this thing in the right direction, which is what we have been doing and we are trying to do. We have to build on this momentum and keep going one game at a time.”

On Sunday, the Browns trailed Washington 20-17 in the fourth quarter until Mayfield found rookie tight end Harrison Bryant for a go-ahead 3-yard touchdown pass with 11:19 to play. Cleveland intercepted Dwayne Haskins for a third time on Washington’s ensuing series, then running back Nick Chubb put the Browns back in command for good with a 20-yard touchdown run, his second score of the day.

The New York Giants now hold the longest streak without a winning record at 55 weeks.

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