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Steelers’ Mike Tomlin adamantly defends Mason Rudolph against Myles Garrett’s claims

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PITTSBURGH – Two days after issuing a statement strongly supporting his quarterback, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin appeared on First Take to continue defending Mason Rudolph in the wake of another allegation made by Myles Garrett in an interview with ESPN’s Mina Kimes and voice his frustration with the coverage.

“The most recent one this past weekend, I took offense to it, to be quite honest with you,” Tomlin told ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith. “… I fully support Mason Rudolph, we, as an organization, fully support Mason Rudolph. To be quite honest with you, we were hacked off by what we saw this weekend.”

Tomlin added: “I think [Rudolph’s] reputation needs to be defended and defended aggressively.”

Not only was Tomlin frustrated by Garrett’s characterization of Rudolph in his interview with Mina Kimes, he was also upset with the tone of the panel discussion on Outside the Lines after the interview aired Saturday morning.

“These accusations are serious, not only in terms of Mason Rudolph’s character, but his professional pursuits,” Tomlin told Smith. “Nobody on that field, as a member of the Cleveland Browns or the Pittsburgh Steelers, corroborated what was said by Myles Garrett. … At no point during that piece this weekend was that stated.”

Tomlin said the way the situation was presented wasn’t “fair” to Rudolph, which led to him agreeing to appear on First Take – especially rare because Tomlin doesn’t typically do interviews between the conclusion of the season and league owners’ meetings in April.

“It was presented as a he said-he said situation, even to this day,” Tomlin said. “I think the National Football League office was very clear that they launched a thorough investigation among all parties involved including interviewing the people and the analysis of technology that was on that field and found no evidence of Myles’ allegation, and I think that should be stated.”

In the interview with Kimes, Garrett blamed Rudolph for starting the fight that led to $732,422 in fines and the discipline of 33 players, and said Rudolph used the slur as he was being sacked by Garrett.

Rudolph spoke out about the allegation in a tweet Saturday, calling Garrett’s claim “1000 percent false” and a “bold-faced lie.”

Rudolph initially engaged with Garrett on the ground, and then charged at him after Garrett forcibly removed Rudolph’s helmet. Then, Garrett hit Rudolph over the head with it.

“I don’t say the N-word, whether it’s with ‘a’ [or] ‘er.’ To me, personally, [it] just shouldn’t be said, whether it’s by family, friends, anyone,” Garrett told Kimes. “I don’t want to use it because I don’t want [people to] find that appropriate around me for anyone to use.

“When he said it, it kind of sparked something, but I still tried to let it go and still walk away. But once he came back, it kind of reignited the situation. And not only have you escalated things past what they needed to be with such little time in the game left, now you’re trying to reengage and start a fight again. It’s definitely not entirely his fault; it’s definitely both parties doing something that we shouldn’t have been doing.”

At the time, an NFL spokesman said the league “found no such evidence” that Rudolph used the slur.

Garrett told Kimes that he believed there was recorded audio proving what Rudolph said.

“There were guys who were mic’d up near me, near us, during that time who didn’t hear anything,” Garrett said. “And from what I’ve heard, there (might) have been audio during that game that could have heard something or could not have heard something, but they don’t want to say.”

However, a league spokesman told ESPN’s Adam Schefter on Saturday that no sound from the field was recorded. The spokesman added that linemen are mic’d up to amplify ambient sound but that the mics do not record and are shut off after the ball is snapped.

The NFL also released a statement Saturday noting that, after checking with the officiating crew, “no player on either team came forward to say they heard (Rudolph) say it on the field.” On Monday, Tomlin said the idea that the Steelers could be involved in a cover up was “laughable.”

Asked how culpable Rudolph should be for his role in the brawl, Tomlin admitted he struggled with the thought.

“It’s been a lot of negativity around Mason Rudolph,” Tomlin said. “He got fined $50,000 for essentially getting beat up. His reputation has been tarnished because of the allegations, none of which was founded. He was a quarterback in the losing circumstances at the end of a football game. Obviously he was an active participant in the altercation, but a lot of the things that have gone on beyond that, I struggle with.”

In a statement issued Saturday, Rudolph’s agent and attorney, Tim Younger, said the “defamatory” statements by Garrett exposed him to “legal liability.”

Tomlin wouldn’t speculate on what legal steps, if any, Rudolph and his team would pursue, but said, “I would expect him to do what was appropriate in terms of protecting his name and reputation. I would do so aggressively, and I don’t blame him.”

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Panthers add ex-Raiders LB Tahir Whitehead

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Former Raiders linebacker Tahir Whitehead has signed a one-year deal with the Carolina Panthers, a league source confirmed to ESPN.

Whitehead, who turns 30 on April 2, adds veteran experience to a linebacker corps that lost Pro Bowler Luke Kuechly to retirement after the season.

Whitehead was a fifth-round pick by the Detroit Lions out of Temple in 2012, when new Panthers coach Matt Rhule was an assistant for the Owls. Rhule went on to become the head coach at Temple from 2013 to 2016.

NFL Network first reported the news of Whitehead’s agreement.

The Raiders released Whitehead on March 9 in a move that cleared $6.25 million in salary-cap space.

Whitehead started all 32 games for the Raiders the past two seasons. He signed with the team as a free agent after six seasons with Detroit.

He had 108 combined tackles last season, the fourth straight year he had more than 100. However, his 941 defensive snaps last season were the most in the NFL for any linebacker who failed to record a sack, an interception, a fumble recovery or a forced fumble, according to research by The Associated Press.

After the Week 5 season-long suspension of middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict, Whitehead slid over from the strong side and assumed the role of defensive playcaller by wearing the green-dot helmet and playing in the middle of the Raiders’ 4-3 base defense.

But late in the season, Whitehead was replaced at middle linebacker by Will Compton, who had been signed off the street.

ESPN’s Paul Gutierrez contributed to this report.

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XFL star QB P.J. Walker to sign with Panthers

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XFL star quarterback P.J. Walker has confirmed to ESPN that he will sign with the Carolina Panthers.

Walker will become the first XFL player to join an NFL team since the upstart football league announced Friday that its inaugural season had been canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The signing will reunite Walker with Panthers first-year coach Matt Rhule, who coached Walker for four years at Temple.

The 5-foot-11 Walker was one of the XFL’s top players this season and led the Houston Roughnecks to a 5-0 record. He led the league in passing yards (1,338 yards) and passing touchdowns (15).

Walker joins a Panthers team that is in the midst of a transition at the quarterback position as Rhule prepares for his first season in the NFL. The Panthers have agreed to sign Teddy Bridgewater while allowing former NFL MVP Cam Newton to explore options for a trade.

Walker was one of the best players in Temple history and led the Owls to back-to-back 10-win seasons in 2015 and 2016. He is the school’s all-time leader in virtually every passing statistic, including yards (10,668), touchdowns (74) and completions (830).

Temple went 28-19 in games started by Walker, who was the starting quarterback for all 28 of Rhule’s wins at the school.

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How one hit cost an NFL player $1 million

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It was a routine play for the Baltimore Ravens and center Matt Skura. On a fourth down, quarterback Lamar Jackson ran against the Los Angeles Rams, and Skura locked up nose tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day. Then, Rams defensive lineman Michael Brockers accidentally crashed into Skura’s left knee.

It’s a hit that would cost Skura $1.1 million.

Four months ago, when all of Brockers’ 305 pounds rolled into the side of Skura’s leg, Skura’s ACL, MCL and PCL were severed. His kneecap dislocated. Skura was the starting center for the NFL’s highest-scoring offense and was nearing his biggest payday. In one collision, his season was abruptly over in Week 12 and the course of a promising football career was altered.

Skura felt the pain of the NFL’s brutal unpredictability on that one play in Los Angeles. Then last week, the financial reality of that injury came. Skura received the low tender as a restricted free agent at $2.1 million, which is much less than the $3.2 million second-round tender he almost assuredly would’ve gotten if he had avoided injury.

“It’s crazy because we’ve ran those plays hundreds of times in the last three years and nothing happens. Then one play can change it,” Skura said. “And that’s the tough part, too. You think you can go back and rewind that play over and over again, and you try to change time. You think you can do that, and that’s the difficult part of mentally overcoming an injury. It happened and now you just got to move forward and you gotta focus on making your knee better or injury better rather than trying to dwell on the ‘what ifs.'”

There were plenty of shocked faces when Skura was carted off the field at the Coliseum. If anyone was going to be impervious to injury along the offensive line, it was going to be Baltimore’s iron man in the trenches. Skura had started 36 straight games. His 1,814 snaps, from the time he took over as starting center in the 2017 opener to when he blew out his knee, led the NFL.

It’s only natural for Skura to think back to the moment when Ravens left tackle Ronnie Stanley blocked Brockers so hard that the Rams defender fell backward into his leg. Would Skura have escaped injury if his left foot hadn’t been planted? What would’ve been the damage if his heel was simply off the ground?

This seven-figure difference in salary represents a big hit to the wallet for Skura, who went undrafted and earned $1.8 million in three years. His $645,000 salary last season ranked 43rd among centers.

This is purely a business move by Baltimore, which is pressed against the salary cap. The Ravens are looking for any wiggle room and are taking the calculated risk that no other team signs Skura to an offer sheet, given his health status.

“I definitely felt like, ‘This kind of sucks, possibly losing out on an extra million in salary,'” Skura said. “But I mean, right now, I’ve just got to deal with it and say, ‘It is what it is,’ and go out and show that I’m still the same great player that they loved before, and hopefully that pays off and instead of just a million dollar difference. You know it will be much more and so now we’re talking about tens of millions of dollars.”

Skura is aiming to return sometime in training camp, where he can look to regain his starting job from Patrick Mekari. Skura has been off his crutches for over two months, and he’s hoping to get back to running in a couple of weeks.

At home in Charlotte, North Carolina, with his gym closed due to coronavirus precautions, Skura has even taken to pulling his pickup truck with a bungee cord wrapped around his waist. Anything he can do to test the surgically repaired knee.

Even though it sounds strange to say it, Skura feels lucky in some ways. He didn’t tear his meniscus or suffer more nerve or artery damage. It was a significant injury, yet he knows it could’ve been worse.

His social media posts have shown him hitting the exercise bike and lifting weights. His agent, David Canter, tweeted last week: “[Skura] is WAYY ahead of schedule in his recovery.”

Ravens officials have expressed optimism in Skura’s return. Recently retired guard Marshal Yanda reminded coach John Harbaugh that he suffered nearly the same injury in his second season and he went on to play in eight Pro Bowls.

“He established himself as a one of the better centers, at least, in the National Football League, without trying even to overstate it,” Harbaugh said after Skura’s injury. “He was playing at a really, really high level and running the show up front. You just feel bad about it for him, but he’ll come back from it stronger than before.”

This was the first major injury of Skura’s football career, but he’s familiar in dealing with adversity.

A four-year starter at Duke, Skura thought he had a shot at getting selected as high as the fourth round but ended up signing with Baltimore as a free agent (after six other centers were drafted). He spent his rookie season on the Ravens’ practice squad before getting a tough first starting assignment in 2017. Skura was asked to fill in for a perennial Pro Bowl player, Yanda, in London. Skura had to line up at guard, a position he hadn’t played in five years.

After holding his own at guard, Skura took over at center in 2018 for Ryan Jensen, who left to become the NFL’s highest-paid center with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Skura developed into a steady presence inside, ranking as the league’s 16th-best center at the time of his injury last season.

“He’s a coach’s voice. He’s a coach’s eyes,” Ravens offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris said. “He does what he’s supposed to do, and he plays hard.”

If Skura can establish himself again this season, he can cash in as a free agent next offseason. The top seven centers in the league are averaging $10 million per season.

Right now, Skura has to deal with a smaller-than-expected salary and a head-shaking coincidence. On the same day Skura’s tender was announced, the Ravens signed Brockers, the same player who inadvertently injured Skura, to a three-year, $30 million contract.

Will Skura ask Brockers to keep his distance out on the practice field?

“Maybe he can sit out some plays when I’m in there,” Skura jokingly said.

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