TEMPE, Ariz. — Running back James Conner has traveled the country for work and pleasure, but his world has been centered around western Pennsylvania for all 25 years of his life.
That changed this week.
Conner signed a one-year deal with the Arizona Cardinals on Tuesday, which means he’ll be leaving his home state on a full-time basis for the first the first time in his life. He grew up in Erie, went to college at the University of Pittsburgh and then played the first four years of his NFL career with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Conner has never played a home game outside of the Keystone State.
After practicing in the same facility and playing in Heinz Field for eight years, Conner’s new football home, State Farm Stadium, is 2,104 miles away from his old one.
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“I feel brand new,” Conner said. “I’m excited for this opportunity. It’s definitely a change of scenery for me, being in Pittsburgh eight years.
“All that time in Pittsburgh was just prepping me for where I’m at right now in my life. And this journey brought me out here to A-Z and I felt like I was well equipped, just everything I’ve been through and continue to go through on this journey and leads me to here. So, man, I’m excited to be in this red. I’m excited. I’m truly excited and it’s a blessing.”
Conner didn’t necessarily have a desire to leave western Pennsylvania but admitted that he’s looking forward to the change.
It’ll be an opportunity for him to meet new people, see new places and experience more of the country.
“Certain people talk about being in their hometown and just feel like there’s opportunity for me to grow,” he said. “It’s something new and so I was looking forward to that.”
When Conner, who ran for 2,302 yards and 22 touchdowns with the Steelers, was looking for a new home in free agency, he felt Arizona and the Cardinals were “right place, right time.”
He saw the football side of the decision as an opportunity to contribute to a team that, he feels, is “on the rise” and was a chance to learn from veterans such as receivers DeAndre Hopkins and A.J. Green. Along with Green, Conner is one of six former Pro Bowl players the Cardinals have added during free agency, joining defensive end J.J. Watt, center Rodney Hudson, cornerback Malcolm Butler and kicker Matt Prater as well.
From a personal side, there was one key element to living in Arizona that helped sway Conner’s decision: The sun.
The state is known to average more than 310 days of sunshine every year.
“This is my vibe,” Conner said. “I love the sun.”
Denver Broncos WR DaeSean Hamilton tears knee ligament in workout away from team facility, sources say
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Broncos wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton, whom Denver was trying to trade in recent days, has suffered a torn knee ligament in a workout away from the team’s complex, team sources told ESPN.
Hamilton suffered the injury Friday morning, and had not been working out at the team’s suburban Denver facility, sources said.
Hamilton is the second Broncos player to have suffered a significant injury away from the team’s complex after tackle Ja’Wuan James suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon injury earlier this month. James was officially released Friday.
The Broncos were seeking to trade Hamilton, who was a fourth-round pick in the 2018 draft, over the past week and had talks with at least one team as recently as Thursday. The Broncos, given Courtland Sutton‘s return from last season’s ACL tear and the depth at wide receiver overall, were expected to waive Hamilton if no trade partner could be found before they began their OTAs later this month.
The Broncos will begin “Phase 2” of their voluntary offseason program Monday.
The NFL Players Association had advised players not to take part in voluntary workouts at team facilities this offseason. The Broncos players were among the first to issue a joint statement in April saying they would boycott the voluntary workouts, and the team has still had a little more than 20 veteran players working out at the facility at various times in April and May.
James’ injury has already been a flashpoint between the NFL and the NFLPA over the “non-football injury” designation. That designation means teams are not required to pay players their full base salaries if they were injured outside of team facilities.
The day after James was injured earlier this month, he was specifically named in a memo from the NFL’s management council to team executives and head coaches. In that memo it was outlined under the “Non-Football Injuries” designation that teams like the Broncos would have “no contractual obligation” to pay players like James who were injured away from the team facilities.
The memo also outlined why a player’s salary would be paid if the injury had been suffered during a workout at a team’s complex. The memo also said: “Clubs are encouraged to remind players of the significant injury-related protection provided if they choose to work out at the club facility and the risks they undertake in choosing to train at a non-NFL location.”
The NFLPA responded two days later in an email to players that said: “It was gutless to use a player’s serious injury as a scare tactic to get you to come running back to these workouts.”
The email added: “This memo is another sign of what they think of you and also affirms that they simply want to control you year-round in any and every way that they can.”
James’ release Friday had a vested veteran, non-football injury, post-June 1 designation.
The Broncos are essentially voiding $10.58 million worth of guarantees James had for the season — $10 million in base salary in addition to a 17th game check, added when the schedule was increased.
The Broncos will carry a $13 million “dead money” charge against this year’s salary cap after James’ release. James and the NFLPA could file a grievance to try to recover some of the money he lost with the release.
Earlier Friday, James had posted on social media that his “surgery went well,” adding: “Appreciate everyone reaching out. Always remaining positive & striving to be better than yesterday.”
Given the Broncos were trying to trade Hamilton and were poised to waive him if they didn’t find a trade partner, his situation might be handled differently than James’ by the team as both players are likely headed for injured reserve at some point.
Hamilton’s base salary for the 2021 season was scheduled to be $2.183 million, while James has a $10 million salary guarantee.
Hamilton, who has struggled with drops and some confidence issues that have followed some of those drops, had 81 receptions over his first three seasons combined and five career touchdowns. He had 23 catches for 293 yards and two touchdowns last season.
Fully vaccinated NFL players, staff can shed masks at team facilities
Fully vaccinated NFL players and staff will no longer be required to wear masks at team facilities, the league informed clubs in a memo Friday. The policy change is effective immediately.
The NFL’s health and safety department made the decision after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its COVID-19 mask guidelines for the United States on Thursday. People are considered fully vaccinated if 14 days have passed since their second shot of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines or their single shot from Johnson & Johnson.
The league is encouraging but not requiring players to get vaccinated. Non-players are expected to be vaccinated unless they have a medical or religious exemption. Those who are not vaccinated will not be allowed to interact with players.
Cleveland Browns coach Kevin Stefanski learned of the news on the practice field during rookie camp Friday. The reigning NFL Coach of the Year was able to take his mask off for the first time as a head coach.
“It felt pretty good,” Stefanski said. “There were some people I didn’t realize what they looked like.”
According to the memo, the NFL expects additional modifications to come that will reflect “the greatly reduced risk of viral infection and transmission in fully vaccinated individuals.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
New York Giants’ Kadarius Toney does drill shoeless due to ‘wrong size’ cleats
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — New York Giants first-round pick Kadarius Toney‘s first practice with the team did not go exactly as planned. That was evident when he was seen running an individual wide receiver drill Friday without a cleat.
Shoeless KT was born out of necessity because of what he termed the “wrong size” cleats.
Toney was seen fiddling with his right cleat early during Friday’s rookie minicamp practice. At different points during the workout he changed cleats, added socks, changed socks, worked with the equipment staff and even the training staff. He even kneeled off to the side and looked downright uncomfortable at times.
It’s fair to say on this one he didn’t start out on the right foot. Instead, he started out barefoot.
“I think they did the wrong size. Just figuring it out right now,” Toney said afterward. “I ended up getting it eventually.”
Well, at least not before the session was over. Despite returning for a special teams period late in practice, Toney was on the side as his teammates ran conditioning drills to finish the day.
It was an unusual first impression, no doubt.
“Yeah, it was kind of, yeah, basically just cleat,” Toney said. “I mean, yeah, it was just a safer route to go [on the conditioning], I guess you could say.”
The Giants traded back in the first round of last month’s draft and used the 20th overall pick to select Toney out of the University of Florida, where he was first-team All-SEC last year.
But everything is new now that he is a professional, including his equipment. Toney signed an apparel deal with Adidas before the draft, according to his Instagram account.
Coach Joe Judge considered this rookie minicamp, which began Friday, as a sort of orientation for the rookies. But he probably did think that meant figuring out what size shoe would fit his top pick in this year’s draft.
“You know what, first day on the field I think there’s a little bit of equipment issue,” Judge said. “We have to get that straightened out and make sure our guys hit the field with equipment they are comfortable with. We’ll handle that, make sure it’s not an issue going forward.”
Day 2 is scheduled for Saturday. Hopefully with two properly fitted cleats.
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