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BEREA, Ohio – Next season, the Cleveland Browns‘ defense will feature two former No. 1 overall picks off the edge. And they’re banking the All-Pro they drafted four years ago will help unlock the vast potential of the one they just signed.

Wednesday, Cleveland further bolstered its budding defense in free agency, inking Jadeveon Clowney to a one-year deal worth up to $10 million.

Unlike Myles Garrett, Clowney has yet to live up to the billing of being the No. 1 pick. But now healthy again, he sees playing in Cleveland alongside Garrett as an opportunity to finally do so in his eighth season in the league.

“I just want to show that I’m still an elite player,” Clowney said Wednesday. “And prove to other people that I’m still out here and can dominate.”

Clowney is coming off a season with Tennessee during which he did anything but dominate. He played eight games with the Titans without notching a single sack, before missing the rest of the season with a torn meniscus in his left knee.

Since becoming the first pick in the 2014 draft, injuries have continually hampered Clowney, beginning with his first career game, which ultimately led to a microfracture in his right knee. Clowney passed a physical in Cleveland on Wednesday on both knees, clearing the way for the Browns to finally sign him.

“I don’t think everybody (has gotten) to see the person they drafted yet,” said Clowney, who has still made three Pro Bowls. “I think I’m working back towards that – I’m well on my way now.

“With my potential and the way I play the game – if I can stay healthy – I shouldn’t be far away from being Defensive Player of the Year. I think I have that potential, and I can do it.”

The Browns already boast a player who was in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation just last season in Garrett. Before contracting COVID-19 in late November, Garrett was leading the NFL with 9.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. Despite missing two games with the virus and laboring with his breathing after returning, Garrett still was named a first-team All-Pro.

Clowney, himself, has commanded plenty of attention from opposing offenses in the past, even with his injury history and inconsistent production. In fact, since 2018, according to ESPN Stats & Info, only Michael Bennett and Za’Darius Smith have been doubled-team more often.

“It’s definitely frustrating,” said Clowney, who, despite the constant double teams, still owns one of the five-best pass-rush win rates since 2018. “You game plan all week to go against one person, watch him all week to get pass-rush reps — and then you go into the game, and all of a sudden, it’s two people in front of you or somebody there to chip you the whole game.”

In Cleveland, however, Clowney could see the fewest double teams of his career, lining up opposite Garrett, who faced the third-highest rate of double teams last season.

“I’m looking forward to playing with somebody who is dominant on the opposite side like a Myles Garrett, who can draw a double team,” Clowney said. “Maybe I can go one-on-one more.”

Without a doubt, Clowney will see more one-on-one opportunities. And having already landed edge rusher Takkarist McKinley in free agency this offseason, Cleveland could deploy Clowney in the pass rush in a variety of creative ways.

“We love his relentless style of play,” general manager Andrew Berry said in a statement. “He’s one of the more disruptive players in the game and we think he’s going to add an element of ruggedness along our defensive line.

“The other thing we love about Jadeveon is his versatility, his ability to play all across the front and impact the game regardless of his alignment.”

Berry has been busy this offseason upgrading every level of a defense that ranked just 19th in efficiency in 2020 but for a team that still won 12 games and advanced to the second round of the playoffs. Last month, the Browns landed arguably the top safety available in free agency in John Johnson III from the Rams. Berry also added three other potential defensive starters in linebacker Anthony Walker, nickelback Troy Hill and defensive tackle Malik Jackson.

Clowney, however, has enough talent to elevate the Browns’ defense to yet another level. Especially if he, in his own words, proves that he can be a dominant player once again.

“That is all I am here to prove this year,” he said. “We’re going to see this season.”

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New Orleans Saints sign rookie free agent defensive tackle Lorenzo Neal Jr., son of former All-Pro fullback

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METAIRIE, La. — As an All-Pro fullback, Lorenzo Neal made a career out of paving the way for some of the NFL’s great runners for 16 years. Now it’s Neal’s son who is following in his footsteps.

Purdue defensive tackle Lorenzo Neal Jr. signed Sunday as an undrafted rookie free agent with the New Orleans Saints – the same team that drafted his dad in 1993.

Neal Jr. was signed after being invited to try out during the Saints’ rookie minicamp over the weekend. The team also signed linebacker Quentin Poling and offensive lineman Kyle Murphy after tryouts.

Neal Jr. (6-foot-3, 325 pounds) was an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection by the coaches in both 2018 and 2020. But his career was waylaid by a torn ACL that sidelined him for the entire 2019 season. He finished his career with 73 tackles, four sacks and four forced fumbles in 38 games.

Neal Sr. began his career as a tailback with the Saints but was converted to fullback after an ankle injury his rookie year. He spent four seasons in New Orleans before playing for the New York Jets, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tennessee Titans, Cincinnati Bengals, San Diego Chargers and Baltimore Ravens.

Neal was a member of the 2000s all-decade team, a two-time first-team All-Pro selection and a four-time Pro Bowler. He had an 11-year streak of blocking for 1,000-yard rushers, including five with future Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego.

Neal Sr. also had a big impact on Drew Brees as a supportive teammate early in Brees’ career with the Chargers.



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Ex-Austin Peay Governors DB Juantarius Bryant falls victim of Atlanta Falcons tryout hoax

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Juantarius Bryant thought he was heading to Georgia this weekend to try out for the Atlanta Falcons during the team’s rookie minicamp. When he arrived in Flowery Branch, though, he learned he had been the victim of a hoax instead.

Bryant, a defensive back from Austin Peay, was never actually contacted by the Falcons but instead by someone texting him from an Atlanta area code pretending to be defensive coordinator Dean Pees. So when Bryant arrived at the team’s facility Wednesday to get ready for his chance to try and accomplish an NFL dream, he was instead turned away.

“I do not know or understand why this has happened,” Bryant wrote in a Twitter message. “But I do know that everything happens for a reason. Yes, this was heart breaking for me, but just another stepping stone that I am not afraid to admit or overcome.

“At the end of the day, this will not make or break me. I will still continue to fight for my dreams because I know it’s what I really want.”

Bryant declined to do a full interview with ESPN when reached Sunday and said he posted something about it publicly on Twitter to let people who have supported him know what was going on because he believed he had a legitimate invite to Falcons camp over the weekend.

“I am ready to move on from the situation and respectfully I do not feel like talking about it over and over again,” Bryant said in an email to ESPN. “Yes, whoever did this to me is very wrong, but I’m moving on from the situation and I forgive them for whatever reason they chose to do it.

“I honestly would not like the person who pulled this stunt on me to be publicly humiliated. I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.”

Bryant, who is from Nashville, initially began his career as a walk-on at Austin Peay and became a first-team All-Ohio Valley Conference defensive back by his senior season in 2019 after making 107 tackles (2.5 for loss). In his career, he played in 43 games for Austin Peay with 242 tackles (8.5 for loss), eight passes defended, three forced fumbles and an interception.

The Falcons declined to comment about the situation to ESPN, but Bryant’s agent, Corey Alexander, tweeted that he has been in touch with the Falcons about what happened. A message left with Alexander seeking further comment was not immediately returned.

COVID-19 protocols limited the number of tryout players a team could have at its rookie minicamps the past two weeks. Atlanta had five players try out for the team this weekend — the maximum the team could have — and signed defensive lineman Olive Sagapolu, who was in training camp with the Detroit Lions last year, on Sunday.



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Carolina in his mind? New York Jets rookie Zach Wilson catches a tough break – New York Jets Blog

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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — A look at what’s happening around the New York Jets:

1. Wilson vs. Darnold: Zach Wilson‘s NFL debut will be off-Broadway in location only. In terms of theater, his Week 1 road showdown against predecessor Sam Darnold is worth a neon marquee.

While Jets-Carolina Panthers is being billed as Darnold’s revenge game, the potential impact on Wilson can’t be dismissed. Already facing huge expectations as the No. 2 pick and perceived franchise savior, the 21-year-old rookie and presumptive starter will be under magnified pressure in what amounts to a statement game.

Is that a fair way to look at it? No, but that’s how it will play. The NFL schedule-makers, always lusting for drama, did the Jets no favors by staging Wilson versus Darnold. This is no soft opening, that’s for sure.

Wilson hasn’t commented yet on the matchup, but someone who knows him well believes he will be unfazed by the magnitude of it.

“He looks forward to opportunities like this,” said former NFL quarterback John Beck, Wilson’s longtime personal coach. “Because people kind of snubbed him young, meaning he wasn’t heavily recruited [in high school], he could see these as opportunities to prove something.

“He’s not one of those people who had everybody telling him how good he was. In situations like this, those [players] probably think, ‘Oh, gosh, I may fail and, if I fail, what does that mean?’ I think Zach views that as the opposite.

“To him, it’s not him versus Sam Darnold. In Zach’s mind, it’s him taking the stage at his first regular-season game. To him, that’s what this stage is about. Because of that, he wants to play really well in that situation. I think that type of challenge excites him.”

Last month’s Darnold trade wasn’t a clear-cut decision for Jets general manager Joe Douglas, who admitted he considered the possibility of pairing Darnold and Wilson. Despite his struggles in New York, Darnold remains popular within the organization and the fan base. In that sense, it’s probably a good thing the opener is on the road. If the day goes sideways, Wilson won’t have to worry about fan backlash.

2. Two for the show: As expected, Wilson will wear No. 2. There’s certainly not much Jets history associated with that number. The most recognizable player to wear No. 2 was place-kicker Nick Folk, a member of the team from 2010 to 2016. In terms of New York sports history, the all-time No. 2 is a no-brainer — former Yankees star Derek Jeter.

3. Sorry, wrong number: First-round pick Alijah Vera-Tucker will wear No. 75, which raises a question: Why is that number still in circulation? The Jets should retire that number because it belonged to the late great Winston Hill, who was recently inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Other ex-Jets in the Hall of Fame — quarterback Joe Namath (12), wide receiver Don Maynard (13) and running back Curtis Martin (28) — had their numbers retired by the team. Even defensive lineman Joe Klecko (73), not a member of the HOF (even though he should be), had his number retired. Why should Hill, who wore No. 75 with distinction for 14 seasons, be different? By the same token, offensive lineman Kevin Mawae (68), inducted in 2019, also should be afforded that honor. No current player has No. 68.

Vera-Tucker wore No. 75 at USC, so his preference is understandable. Chuma Edoga, another former USC lineman, wore it for the Jets the past two years. No one should wear it again now that Hill has been posthumously honored in Canton.

The Jets, aware of the Hill situation, haven’t ruled out adjustments in the future.

4. Inside the schedule: Every team’s schedule is filled with quirks and trends. Let’s take a closer look at the Jets’ slate:

  • Positives: They have 13 games at 1 p.m. ET, a franchise record. That’s not great for national exposure, but it makes the coaches happy. Prime-time games cut into the following week’s preparation. … The Jets and Chicago Bears are the only teams without back-to-back road games. … They face only one 2020 playoff team (Tennessee Titans) in their first seven games. … Starting in Week 10, they have six home games in a span of eight weeks, their first such stretch since 1976. … They could benefit from an unbalanced schedule. Due to the 17-game schedule and a London game, the Jets have nine home games, seven true road games and one international game. The Miami Dolphins have the same situation.

  • Negatives: The bye is Week 6, the earliest it can be. (Three other teams have the early bye.) For the Jets, it comes after their trip to London. That means they have to close the season with 12 straight games, which will be taxing. … Their rest differential is minus-2 days. That’s not ideal, but it’s better than the New England Patriots (-15) and Dolphins (-6). (Note: The Jets had a plus-8 differential last season, which did them no good.) … They’re away from home in four of the first six games, which could be a factor now that stadiums are expected to be at full capacity again. … Five of the Jets’ final 10 games are against 2020 playoff teams.

5. Did you know? The Jets play the Patriots in Weeks 2 and 7. If Wilson starts against Mac Jones, who will supplant Cam Newton at some point, it will mark the first time in the history of the Jets-Patriots rivalry that two rookie quarterbacks started. That covers 121 regular-season games. Tom Brady started 36 of them, none as a rookie, which explains a lot.

6. No opt-outs: Before the 2021 NFL draft, Douglas was on the fence when asked how he would evaluate prospects who opted out for 2020. On one hand, he said it would be a “challenge” to grade players based on 2019 tape. But he made sure to note he respected the wishes of those who decided not to play, ostensibly for COVID-19 concerns. (Wink, wink.)

As it turned out, no fewer than 19 teams drafted at least one player who opted out for the entire college season — but not the Jets. Wide receiver Elijah Moore opted out for the final two games at Ole Miss, but he still had eight highly productive games on tape in 2020. Douglas picked players who played, and I don’t think that was a coincidence. He’s all about minimizing risk, and he recognized opt-outs carried more risk than other players.

7. Super sleeper: For obvious reasons, the Jets’ third-day defensive draft picks didn’t get much exposure, but one name to watch is fifth-round pick Jamien Sherwood, the safety/linebacker hybrid. He was a tackling star at Auburn, but his pro evaluation dropped with a disappointing 40-yard dash (4.74 seconds) at his pro day. The Jets see him as an ideal fit as a weakside linebacker in their 4-3 front — a wide-open position — and there’s some thought he could emerge as the starter. He played safety with a linebacker mentality.

8. Looking for gems: The Jets were aggressive in signing undrafted free agents, doling out relatively large guarantees for coveted players. Oregon State cornerback Isaiah Dunn got $185,000 and Ole Miss tight end Kenny Yeboah received $180,000, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Those were two of the league’s biggest guarantees.

9. Whatever happened to…: Most of the members of the Jets’ previous coaching staff landed jobs in the pro and college ranks. Of the coordinators and position coaches on Adam Gase’s staff, only Gregg Williams (defensive coordinator), Joe Vitt (outside linebackers) and Jim Bob Cooter (running backs) are out of coaching. Vitt, Gase’s father-in-law, could retire. Gase, too, is not coaching; he has two years left on his contract.

10. The last word: “He’s a fantastic guy. I think he’s the leader of men that the Jets need. I think he’s going to be one of the biggest parts of the rebuild phase.” — center Connor McGovern on coach Robert Saleh, via inforum.com in Fargo, North Dakota (his hometown).



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