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Falcons GM optimistic about Julio contract talks



FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff continued to express optimism about the progress of contract talks with Julio Jones, without putting a timetable on reaching a new deal with the star wide receiver.

Jones reported to training camp Monday without a new contract. The six-time Pro Bowler said in the offseason he trusted team owner Arthur Blank’s word when Blank said a deal would be completed in a matter of time.

Jones spent the first two days of training camp primarily rehabbing on the side following a minor offseason foot procedure [bunion removal]. Coach Dan Quinn emphasized that Jones not being a full participant in practice has to do with rehabbing, not the contract talks.

“We have the utmost faith that Julio is coming here and he’s taking care of his business while he’s here, and we’ll keep plugging away with [Jones’ agent] Jimmy [Sexton],” Dimitroff told ESPN on Tuesday. “We have a very good working relationship and respect for Jimmy Sexton and CAA, and I’m confident [the deal] will get done.”

Jones has two years and $21 million left on his contract. The Falcons renegotiated his current deal last year, netting Jones an extra $2.9 million for 2018. He signed the renegotiated deal on July 27.

Dimitroff addressed the possibility of Jones’ camp waiting to see what happens with contracts for other top wide receivers, such as Michael Thomas from the New Orleans Saints. The market could soar up to $20 million per year, which would make it logical for Jones to want to wait and see. Cleveland’s Odell Beckham Jr. currently leads the way at $18 million per year, while Jones stands 12th at $14.25 million.

“I understand that, from a business standpoint,” Dimitroff said of waiting for the market to be set. “Do I agree with it necessarily? That’s not for me to argue about.”

Dimitroff also acknowledged language in the collective bargaining agreement which states how a player’s contract cannot be renegotiated to increase the salary from the original terms for a period of 12 months after the most recent renegotiation. A source explained to ESPN that such would apply in Jones’ case (from July 27) if his aggregate cap number over the next two years in a new deal exceeds the current aggregate cap number of $26,359,334 for 2019, 2020.

However, Dimitroff was cautious not to point to the CBA rule as the holdup in contract talks.

“It would make it more free-flowing to negotiate outside of the year with the guidelines,” Dimitroff said. “That’s not to say that’s why we’re not getting something done right at this moment. I’m saying logically stated that, of course, [the rule] can play into it. But I do not want to answer for Jimmy Sexton.”

Sexton could not be reached for comment regarding the status of negotiations.

Overall, Dimitroff feels confident about how talks have progressed and how Jones has handled the matter with professionalism.

“Julio’s been nothing but great with us over the years,” Dimitroff said. “Even last year, when it got a little bit dusty during that time, we were able to sit down and work through it. I thought we worked through it cleanly.

“We understand being the highest-paid receiver in the NFL. And the fact that Julio is approaching it the way he is is appreciated. That said, we expect nothing less from Julio Jones, one of our main leaders on this team.”

The Falcons reached pre-training camp deals with defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and linebacker Deion Jones. Jarrett, who received the franchise tag, signed a four-year, $68 million deal with $42.5 million guaranteed. Deion Jones signed a four-year, $57 million deal with $34 million guaranteed.

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‘Annoying little brother’ Baker Mayfield once aspired to be like his Browns backup



BEREA, Ohio — Growing up, Baker Mayfield admired Green Bay Packers legend Brett Favre from afar. But up close, he idolized the quarterback now backing him up on the Cleveland Browns.

Long before he emerged into an NFL franchise quarterback, Mayfield was an undersized middle-schooler, dreaming one day he might become Lake Travis High School’s next Garrett Gilbert.

“I’ve always looked up to Garrett,” said Mayfield, 24. “It’s so surreal to have him on the same team.”

After having his banner season playing in the Alliance of American Football cut short this spring when the league unexpectedly folded, Gilbert is now trying to make the 53-man roster in Cleveland as a third quarterback, alongside trusted veteran Drew Stanton.

Gilbert has impressed all during training camp, flashing the big arm that made him a five-star recruit a decade ago. In Saturday’s preseason game at Indianapolis, Gilbert got the start with Mayfield resting and delivered his finest performance yet, tossing two touchdowns to lead the Browns to a victory.

“He came in and had control of the huddle,” Cleveland coach Freddie Kitchens said. “Made some plays. … eliminated mistakes. I thought he performed really well.”

That potential value to the Browns, however, goes beyond the field. Gilbert, after all, has the ear of the face of the franchise, as well.

“Baker and I go way back, sort of grew up together,” said Gilbert, 28. “You think about team chemistry and how teams that are close and that are essentially family that they’re able to call each other out on things. Because of our past relationship, I feel like that gives me that instant credibility to be able to talk with him.”

An instant credibility derived from time. The two Austin, Texas natives go back to when Gilbert was in high school and Mayfield was in junior high. Mayfield’s best friend was Gilbert’s younger brother, Griffin, who’s a year older than Mayfield.

“Baker became part of our group, and really we started hanging out almost every single day,” recalled Griffin Gilbert, who was in Mayfield’s wedding this summer. “He’d ride along with me and my brother in his truck because really my brother at that time was the only one of us that could drive. I was in the front seat, Baker’s in the back seat. I mean it was pretty much that we were going to pick up Baker just about every single time we were going to hang out.”

The Gilbert gang, composed of a dozen or so friends, including Mayfield, spent evenings and weekends together playing pool, backyard baseball and pick-up basketball, both water and regular. Their favorite pastime, however, was “razzle,” a hybrid game of football and ultimate frisbee, where passing and catching are paramount.

“He had to toughen up to come up [with us] a little bit,” Garrett Gilbert said. “But he was always a competitor. He stuck his nose in there and he’d hop right back up.”

Garrett Gilbert, a 6-foot-4 standout athlete who would have the bluebloods of college football begging him to play for them, was the leader. Essentially, everyone’s big brother.

“Garrett was an absolute rock star around here and really across the state,” longtime Lake Travis football coach Hank Carter said. “Such a physical specimen, he was the biggest, one of the fastest, could throw it a mile.”

Mayfield, meanwhile, was the group’s trash-talking little brother, who was not only the youngest, but at around 5-foot-4, also the smallest, yet to hit his growth spurt.

“That’s really what he was, that annoying little brother to all of us,” Griffin Gilbert said of Mayfield, whose affectionate nickname among the group was “the fat 12-year-old,” a moniker that has remained to this day. “We’d always be pushing him around, but he was always clapping back with us. You would think, why would the little runt be clapping back to the oldest guy, Garrett? But he clapped back at him every single day, too. That’s his personality. He’s the fiery little dog, you’ve seen it everywhere. He’s just got that fire within him that if someone talks to him, he’s going to talk back. He’s always been good at it, and he does it in a way that’s funny a lot of the times.”

That’s one reason why Garrett Gilbert said he relished bodying up Mayfield on the basketball court. But also a reason why Gilbert came to respect him, regardless of the four-year age difference.

“He wasn’t very big, but was going to be right in the middle of things,” Gilbert said. “That stems from that confidence he had in himself. And certainly, a little bit of a chip on his shoulder — he’s definitely always had that. I think that’s a big reason why he’s where he’s at today.”

Despite their distinctly different personalities — Mayfield brash and boisterous, Gilbert subtle and subdued — the two formed a bond through playful competition. And in addition to having him as friend, Mayfield found a quarterback mentor in Gilbert, as well.

“Baker’s obviously his own person, but he definitely looked up to Garrett,” Griffin Gilbert said. “Baker saw Garrett as that role model, that person that he wanted to definitely strive to be.”

Not that their paths would be the same, though eventually they would cross, more than once.

“We’d always be pushing him around, but he was always clapping back with us. You would think, why would the little runt be clapping back to the oldest guy, Garrett? But he clapped back at him every single day, too. That’s his personality. He’s the fiery little dog, you’ve seen it everywhere.”

Griffin Gilbert on Baker Mayfield

After breaking multiple Texas high school passing records and leading Lake Travis to consecutive state championships, Garrett Gilbert signed with Texas. He showed promise as a freshman, nearly rallying the Longhorns to a come-from-behind victory over Alabama in the 2009 national championship game after a rough start replacing injured Heisman finalist Colt McCoy. Gilbert, however, struggled the following year, and Texas finished with a losing record. The ensuing season, he lost his starting job, and transferred to SMU — a move that would later pit him against Mayfield on the field.

Back at Lake Travis, Mayfield carried on the quarterback tradition, leading the Cavs to another state title. But unlike Gilbert, who boasted the prototypical size college coaches covet, Mayfield was barely recruited.

“He can freaking sling it now, but in high school he didn’t have an arm like Garrett,” Carter said. “Baker’s an incredible leader, so smart. … always a rowdy player — he developed all the things you need to be successful before his body caught up. Garrett was like a man playing with boys his senior year, just so imposing. With Baker, eventually his body would catch up. But his physical matury, especially in high school, was incremental.”

Mayfield had hopes of joining his former teammate Griffin Gilbert at TCU. But an offer from the Horned Frogs never came.

“I guess they had a couple other guys that they were looking at, and they just ended up choosing a different kid,” said Griffin Gilbert, who played fullback for the Horned Frogs before an injury derailed his career. “Baker definitely wanted to go to TCU at that time, but I’ll tell you if that would’ve happened, it’s very possible Baker’s not the person that he is today.”

With few other options, Mayfield walked on at Texas Tech, joining another former Cavs quarterback in Michael Brewer, who was the bridge between Garrett Gilbert and Mayfield at Lake Travis.

That summer, Brewer suffered a back injury, which opened the door for Mayfield to become the first true freshman walk-on to start a season opener for a Power 5 program. Mayfield’s debut, coincidentally, came against SMU and Gilbert.

“A surreal experience,” Gilbert said. “It was like watching your little brother out there playing — and we couldn’t stop him.”

Gilbert threw for 388 yards on 62 attempts. But Mayfield was the story, passing for 413 yards while totaling five touchdowns, as the Red Raiders rolled 41-23.

“That wasn’t a fond memory, because we got smoked but there was definitely a sense of pride,” Gilbert said of Mayfield, who continued to use Gilbert as a sounding board throughout his college career.

Mayfield later transferred to Oklahoma, where he won the Heisman Trophy and led the Sooners to a pair of appearances in the College Football Playoff before he was drafted No. 1 overall by the Browns.

Gilbert bounced around pro football, before catching on with the Orlando Apollos of the AAF this year. Gilbert was on his way to becoming the league’s MVP when the AAF ceased operations in April. But that brought him full circle with Mayfield in Cleveland, where he’s hoping he’ll stick.

As both a viable backup — and valuable confidant — for its franchise quarterback.

“Being able to look at him and just who he is, he is the type of guy that you want to model your game after,” Mayfield said. “You want to be the same leader that he is. We are different leaders, but he is a leader in his own way.

“I’ve always looked up to him, so it’s great having a friend on the team.”

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‘Jitters were real’ in return



HONOLULU — Jason Witten admitted he had more jitters than he normally would for a preseason game after 15 years in the league.

A year away from playing for the Dallas Cowboys will do that to an 11-time Pro Bowl tight end.

In his first action since Dec. 31, 2017, caught one pass for 10 yards on the first-team’s only drive of the Cowboys’ 14-10 win against the Los Angeles Rams at Aloha Stadium on Saturday.

“A year away from the game, all the work to get back here since March, getting in shape, getting your body ready, having an opportunity, I know I’ve got a lot to prove,” Witten said. “It wasn’t perfect. I thought we’re on schedule with the things I want to work on. Able to get a third-down conversion. Dak showed he had the confidence on that. Some of the other things in the passing game, running game, I felt good with. It’s always tricky when you’re coming back out here … so the jitters were real. A lot of work to get back to here, but it felt good.”

Witten spent last year in ESPN’s Monday Night Football booth but opted to return to the Cowboys in February on a one-year deal.

Witten played all 12 snaps on the Cowboys’ first drive Saturday and converted a first down with his 10-yard reception. In his final regular season game in 2017 at Philadelphia, Witten caught two passes for 17 yards in a 6-0 Dallas win.

From the offseason program to the organized team activities to the June minicamp to the 15 practices in Oxnard, California, 12 of which were in full pads, Witten has impressed the front offices, coaches and teammates in his return.

“He’s just one of those guys, incredibly reliable, had a great understanding of the game, very quarterback friendly and he comes up big in crunch time,” coach Jason Garrett said. “He’s done that throughout his career. It was good to see him out here, good to see him playing football, having fun playing football and getting a few snaps under his belt.”

Witten enters the season as the Cowboys’ all-time leader in games played, consecutive games played, receptions and receiving yards. By playing this season, he will have the most service time in franchise history, breaking a tie with Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Mark Tuinei and Bill Bates.

“Doing what I love, no place I’d rather be,” Witten said. “Feel like I’m on schedule. This is the next step for us, and all through training camp, I felt good. We shall see as we move forward, but I wouldn’t bet against.”

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Ray Lewis picks apart chess matches and crabs with Peyton Manning



BALTIMORE — The “Mile High Miracle” propelled the Baltimore Ravens to an upset playoff victory over the Denver Broncos and proved to be the legendary play of their Super Bowl run.

This also marked the final time Peyton Manning would face Ray Lewis on the football field. After that 38-35 overtime loss to Baltimore in 2013, Manning waited an hour and a half to congratulate Lewis.

It was at that time, in an empty locker room at Sports Authority Field, where Manning hugged Lewis. A picture of that moment hangs in Lewis’ home.

“It shows you the type of person he is and also shows you the respect that he has for me,” Lewis said last week. “He loses a game of that magnitude, and he comes in and spends an hour with me. It’s just him. That’s Peyton and that’s our relationship that nobody really knows.”

Lewis recently sat down with Manning for the ESPN+ series Peyton’s Places, which commemorates the NFL’s 100th anniversary. In addition to picking apart crabs, Lewis and Manning playfully went head-to-head once again.

Just like so many times in games, Lewis immediately applied pressure to Manning during the show, asking him why he hadn’t addressed defense yet in his series. Manning’s first episodes focused on Fred Biletnikoff, Roger Staubach and Raymond Berry.

Manning recalled the times at Pro Bowls where he tried to schmooze Lewis by buying his drinks and dinner. He even purchased clubs for Lewis before finding out the Hall of Fame middle linebacker didn’t play golf.

While Lewis and Manning enjoy a friendship now — exchanging pictures of their children through text messages — they were part of one of the league’s greatest chess matches.

Manning and Lewis are longtime students of the game who became masters at outwitting opponents. Manning called his play at the line after analyzing the defense, while Lewis prided himself on predicting the play by picking up on tendencies and formations.

“You just kind of get two brains going,” Lewis said of his 10 showdowns with Manning. “Sometimes I walk up to the line and I’ll say something that has nothing to do with football to him.”

Standing at the line, Manning would scan the defense before checking his wristband. He then shouted at his teammates to his left and right, gyrating his arms and hands.

Answering Manning’s pre-snap theatrics, Lewis would tell linebacker Terrell Suggs to move from one side to the other and direct defensive tackle Haloti Ngata to shift one gap over.

Move after countermove, Lewis and Manning engaged in these mind games.

“There’s many a time when I’ve heard Ray calling out our plays, and he’s been pretty accurate at times,” Manning said.

Lewis called Manning the “hardest person in the world to prepare for” because he was such a gunslinger.

“I think us sitting down in that setting [for the show] gave us a real opportunity to express how much we respect each other,” Lewis said. “If you were a step off, he’s going to cost you. Those moments are some of the moments you remember because he’s such a great friend.”

When it comes to quarterbacks, Manning is at the top of Lewis’ list. As for picking steamed crabs — which Manning attempted with Lewis’ help — let’s say the five-time NFL Most Valuable Player dropped the ball.

“Not good, not good,” Lewis said, shaking his head with a smile. “He’s got to work on that. He’s going to have to come and go through a tutorial.”

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