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NFL owners approve replay change, other new rules for 2021 season

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NFL owners approved a series of new rules Wednesday, including one that will expand the influence of replay officials amid ongoing demands from coaches for more oversight of game-day officials.

Owners rejected more robust proposals for a full-time sky judge, including one from the Baltimore Ravens that would have created a booth umpire. Instead, owners took the more modest step of giving the existing replay official — who sits in the press box of each stadium — the authority to consult with referees on certain “specific, objective aspects of a play when clear and obvious video evidence is present,” according to the language of the rule.

Replay officials will not be able to throw flags or reverse calls on their own. But they can now offer referees advice based on what they’ve seen on broadcast replays in the areas of possession, completed or intercepted passes, the location of the ball relative to the boundary or end line, and whether a player is down by contact. Coaches will not have to throw challenge flags to prompt that advice, which some replay officials have been giving referees informally for years.

In other news regarding Wednesday’s votes, NFL owners:

  • Approved a relaxation of rules for the numbers that players of certain positions can wear because of expanded practice squads. Running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, defensive backs and linebackers can all wear numbers in the single digits if they choose. Based on preexisting NFL rules, players who want to change their numbers this season will have to buy out the inventory of the NFL’s manufacturing partners. This wouldn’t apply to players who give notice in 2021 that they want to change numbers in 2022.

  • Approved a one-year experiment in an attempt to make it easier to recover onside kicks. In 2021, the receiving team on kickoffs will be limited to nine players within 25 yards of the ball. Last season, NFL teams recovered only three of 67 onside kicks, the lowest total and recovery rate since at least 2001.

  • Eliminated overtime in preseason games.

  • Changed a rule that will now force a loss of down if two passes are completed behind the line of scrimmage.

  • A rule change that ensures the enforcement of all accepted penalties during successive try attempts, defined as an opportunity for a team to score one or two additional points during one scrimmage down.

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Denver Broncos WR DaeSean Hamilton tears knee ligament in workout away from team facility, sources say

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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.

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Fully vaccinated NFL players, staff can shed masks at team facilities

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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.

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New York Giants’ Kadarius Toney does drill shoeless due to ‘wrong size’ cleats

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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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