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Falcons GM Terry Fontenot says he’s keeping options open with No. 4 pick in 2021 NFL draft

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Terry Fontenot has gone through all the scenarios. He has weighed a bunch of things in his mind. But the Atlanta Falcons first-year general manager still isn’t sure exactly what he’ll end up doing Thursday night when his team comes on the board with the fourth pick in the NFL draft.

He could stay. He could trade back. He could take a quarterback. Or maybe a tight end. The options are there. Fontenot recognizes that but insists there’s “definitely no pressure” heading into his first draft because he believes the pressure comes in the process of preparing for the draft, not the night itself.

“There are still variables involved so we know the players that we will be discussing there and we can all anticipate the first three picks but it has to actually happen,” Fontenot said. “And then from that point we have to weigh the options of do we trade back compared to the player we could get at four or if we trade back, what would be the value so we have to weigh all those different variables and all those scenarios so we know the players that we’re talking about.

“We’ve gone through the different things that can happen. But you never know what is going to happen at that exact moment but we know the players that we’re talking about.”

Fontenot didn’t go into specific players, although when asked about Florida tight end Kyle Pitts he did say he’s a special player. Common thought is the Falcons will look at quarterbacks — perhaps North Dakota State’s Trey Lance or Ohio State’s Justin Fields — along with Pitts and the potential to move down away from No. 4 to acquire more assets to help build a younger team in a cap conundrum. The Falcons, at this point, don’t have enough cap room to sign their draft class so moves will be coming.

Fontenot said Atlanta will have a large rookie class, and that’ll start with whoever Atlanta takes at No. 4 or elsewhere in the first round if they trade down.

“It’s really case-by-case and we have to weigh it,” Fontenot said. “Wherever that team is and the assets, the draft capital that that team would give up and we have to look at the player we would get at 4 compared to us anticipating the players that we would be looking at, at that later pick and obviously taking into consideration the future picks that we would get. So it’s really a weighing process at that point.”

If the Falcons stay at No. 4, both Fontenot and head coach Arthur Smith have to balance the short-term, win-now thought process along with the broader plan the two of them have for the franchise beyond 2021.

They could take a player they know would play right away, like Pitts, or one that they know might sit behind starting quarterback Matt Ryan in any of the quarterbacks.

“When you’re picking at four, we’re trying to take an impact player, whether it’s a player that’s going to sit or a player that’s going to play right away, we want to bring in an impact player that fits the culture, that has the right makeup and that we have clear vision for that player,” Fontenot said. “So whether that’s someone who is going to sit or that’s someone who is going to play Day 1, we have to have a clear vision and we have to feel really good about not only the player and the skill set but also the person that we’re bringing into the building.

Ryan, based on his contract, is expected to be the starter in 2021 and since the team restructured Ryan’s deal earlier this year, it could mean he ends up as Atlanta’s starter in 2022, too, which would leave a quarterback selected Thursday — or at any point in the draft — having to prepare to sit.

Even if the Falcons don’t take a quarterback at No. 4, it’s likely one will be selected during the draft. Atlanta has one quarterback on its roster — Ryan — and Fontenot essentially said the team has been scouting quarterbacks at every level of the draft and pointed out that good quarterbacks have come from the middle rounds, too.

“We understand, we have to add quarterbacks to the roster,” Fontenot said. “And there’s a lot of good ones and a lot of good options.”

Fontenot also addressed the possibility of a big move in the future for Atlanta, reiterating again that the team has been taking calls on players for potential trades, including star receiver Julio Jones. The salary cap situation the Falcons are in all but means Atlanta has to listen and if there’s enough value, perhaps consider a deal.

Fontenot didn’t want to go too deep into the Jones conversation Wednesday, although it is notable the club restructured the deals for Ryan, linebacker Deion Jones and left tackle Jake Matthews along and had Dante Fowler Jr. take a pay cut. Jones has been left out of that. Fontenot said when it came to the decision of who to restructure and who to not restructure, they didn’t want to do that with everyone to create space — it causes issues in future years — and that correcting the cap “is not going to be an overnight fix.” But it doesn’t answer why the team chose to restructure some players instead of others.

“I know we keep talking about Julio but I don’t want to make this about one player, drill down into one player. It’s just when we look at the scope of things and we look at the circumstances we are in, we make some decisions and there’s a lot of variables in it,” Fontenot said. “And there’s a lot of really smart people, I promise you, there’s a lot of really smart people that we discussed it with and determined what to do.

“And it’s not over. We’re still going through this process but we want to have balance and we want to do things the right way and we’re still, it’s all fluid and it’s all in process right now.”

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Ja’Wuan James considering grievance to recoup potential lost 2021 salary, source says

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Former Denver Broncos offensive tackle Ja’Wuan James is strongly considering filing a grievance through the NFL Players Association for lost wages after he tore his Achilles tendon away from the team facility, a source told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler on Saturday.

James, who was released Friday with a post-June 1 designation, could seek more than $10 million in salary for the 2021 season that the Broncos appear likely to void after they designated him with a non-football injury.

The injury has already been a flashpoint between the NFL and the NFLPA over the “non-football injury” designation, which 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.” Free-agent safety and NFLPA executive board member Michael Thomas also told ESPN’s Dan Graziano this week that “all the players are watching” how James’ situation plays out.

The 28-year-old James suffered his season-ending injury earlier this month. On Friday, he posted on social media that his “surgery went well,” adding: “Appreciate everyone reaching out. Always remaining positive & striving to be better than yesterday.”

Broncos wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton, whom Denver was trying to trade in recent days, also suffered a torn knee ligament in a workout away from the team’s complex, according to ESPN and multiple reports.

ESPN’s Jeff Legwold contributed to this report.

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Saints rookie Nolan Cooney overcame cancer, then learned to punt with help from YouTube

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METAIRIE, La. — It was Nolan Cooney‘s passion for sports that motivated him most when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs during his junior year of high school.

The New Orleans Saints‘ rookie punter was a three-sport standout at East Greenwich High in Rhode Island. He said he wasn’t scared when he got the diagnosis and trusted his doctors, but the only information he researched was stories of athletes like cyclist Lance Armstrong and third baseman Mike Lowell, both of whom successfully underwent treatment for testicular cancer. Cooney was thrilled when he got the chance to speak with Armstrong on the phone, and when New England Patriots cancer survivor Joe Andruzzi came to visit and let him wear his Super Bowl rings.

And sure enough, Cooney reached his goal of returning to the basketball court in time for the playoffs — just days after he finished his two months of chemotherapy treatments. The scene was triumphant, with the crowd chanting his name in the stands.

“We didn’t have to lift his spirits,” Cooney’s parents, Joseph and Janice, agreed while discussing the positive outlook their son has maintained. “Our spirits were lifted by him.”

But nobody in the family ever dreamed that Cooney might become a NFL punter seven years later, signing with the Saints as an undrafted rookie out of Syracuse.

Because, well, Cooney had never punted before.

The three sports he played at the time were basketball, baseball and soccer.

“People say everything happens for a reason,” said Cooney, whose dad suggested he visit a local punting and kicking camp during those months of draining chemo treatments.

“Who knows what would’ve happened if I hadn’t really stumbled upon this during what would seem for a lot of people to be a tougher time [in my life]?” Cooney said. “But maybe it was the greatest thing to ever happen.”

Cooney (6-foot-3, 202 pounds) always had a strong leg from his years as a soccer goalie, and he had a natural spin on his kicks that made him good at punting the ball when he messed around in the yard. But there was a local rule that prevented him from playing both soccer and football in the fall, and he chose soccer.

When Cooney got healthy, he started teaching himself how to punt by watching YouTube videos — as if his story isn’t remarkable enough.

“You can learn a lot from studying film of other punters,” Cooney explained, “and hopefully they’re willing to speak to things that work well for them.”

Cooney attended his first camp in the summer before his senior year of high school, where the instructors told him he showed real promise as a punter (and less as a place-kicker). Then he continued to attend camps, even though he went back to playing soccer in the fall.

Cooney had opportunities to play college baseball as a catcher at smaller schools. But he wanted to pursue punting, so he signed up for a postgraduate year at Bridgton Academy in Maine to actually play on a football team for the first time in 2015.

“He’s a special kid,” said Trevor Coston, a former NFL safety who served as a coach and counselor at Bridgton and became Cooney’s personal assistant when they would shovel snow off the field in the mornings to work on his punting and send tapes out to colleges.

“He’d be up there shoveling the pathway before I’d get there,” Coston said. “It wasn’t like a lot of schools were opening doors. He just kept knocking. And a person like him, if you know him, his story, his background, betting on himself with everything he’s gone through, it was pretty easy that he was gonna make it once he had the chance to show anyone what he was gonna do.”

Cooney was especially persistent with Syracuse, which was the only FBS school that wound up offering him a walk-on opportunity.

Not only was Syracuse his mom’s alma mater, but Cooney had also met former Syracuse and current New York Giants punter Riley Dixon at a camp. And he credited Dixon with passing on his information to some of the coaches and administrators. They sent him an email inviting him to walk on about three weeks before practices started in 2016.

“He basically was like an unrecruited walk-on that kind of just showed up at our door,” said former Syracuse special-teams coach Justin Lustig, who is now at Vanderbilt. “This kid’s unbelievable. One of my favorites I’ve ever coached. [His makeup] is just through the roof, man. Like every category. I haven’t been around a guy that works harder than Nolan.”

Lustig said Cooney started out fourth on the depth chart as a redshirt freshman and gradually worked his way up behind current Atlanta Falcons punter Sterling Hofrichter, while also serving as a holder. When Hofrichter got drafted in 2020, Syracuse offered Cooney a scholarship for his senior year. And he became a third-team All-ACC punter, averaging a school-record 44.8 yards per kick.

Cooney led all FBS punters in total punts (74) and yards (3,314), with 24 downed inside the 20 and only three touchbacks.

He also started a podcast last year featuring a variety of guests who talk about overcoming obstacles. The name of the podcast, fittingly for a punter and cancer survivor, is “Power Through.”

In New Orleans, Cooney will compete with Blake Gillikin, last year’s undrafted rookie, to replace longtime standout Thomas Morstead, who was released in a wave of salary-cap cuts this offseason.

“It’s pretty surreal,” Janice said of her son’s unlikely path to the NFL. “If only they let him play soccer and football, we might have known this a little earlier.”

Meanwhile, the rule that prevented players in East Greenwich from participating in both sports has since been changed. Joseph said some school officials referred to the switch as “the Nolan Cooney rule.”



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Dolphins salivating at the speed Jaylen Waddle, Will Fuller will bring – Miami Dolphins Blog

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MIAMI — Brian Flores is eager to see opposing defensive coordinators sweat when they see the Miami Dolphins‘ offense in 2021.

Speed is the top skill set that makes defenses stress, and the Dolphins coach had a mischievous smirk when asked about the conflict his new dynamic playmakers — first-round pick Jaylen Waddle and free-agent signee William Fuller V — will create.

No Dolphins position group improved more than wide receiver this offseason, and it’s clear quarterback Tua Tagovailoa now has enough players to flourish as he enters an important Year 2. Honestly, none of Miami’s rebuild will matter as much if Tagovailoa doesn’t make the next step.

What makes the Dolphins’ additions of Waddle and Fuller so dangerous are the possibilities they provide to open up opportunities for the rest of the offense as well as themselves.

“If you’ve got guys who can run on the perimeter, if you load the box, there’s more opportunity for one-on-one matchups and opportunities downfield. Defenses have to make that decision when you have those types of players on the field,” Flores said. “If you don’t load the box and you play for those big plays, then there’s less people in the box and less people to block, and I think it really becomes kind of a numbers/math game.”

“When you have guys on the perimeter and guys who demand some attention — that kind of attention — then there could be more space. … It’s a chess game and obviously the run game and how you attack the run game, that’s part of it.”

That is Flores’ answer, by the way, to oft-asked questions about at the Dolphins’ failure to draft or sign a top-tier running back. He believes added playmaker speed at wide receiver and continued offensive line development will help the running game just as much, if not more than any upgrade in the backfield. The “chess game’ theory makes sense as it’s unlikely teams will put seven or eight men in the box to stop Myles Gaskin and the other backs, much like they did in 2020.

Speed changes everything. Fuller and Waddle might prove to be the NFL’s fastest starting receiver duo.

Fuller, previously with the Houston Texans, had the fourth fastest max speed time (21.56 mph) among wide receivers last season, per NFL Next Gen Stats. He was also one of 13 players who were timed with a max speed of more than 21.5 mph. Fuller, a first-round pick by the Texans in 2016, ran a 4.32 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, tied for the ninth fastest official time among active NFL players.

And, guess what? Waddle might be even faster. The former Alabama wideout didn’t run the 40-yard dash this offseason as he recovered from a fractured ankle, but NFL teams received data that Waddle had the fastest GPS time of all college football players last season. Waddle was recorded running a 4.37 40-yard dash at a high school camp and videos circulated last offseason of him running neck-and-neck with Las Vegas Raiders receiver Henry Ruggs III, who ran a 4.27 40 at the 2020 combine. When asked earlier this year, Waddle said he normally runs in the high 4.2s or low 4.3s.

One can only hope for a race this summer to officially decide the Dolphins’ fastest player.

Miami’s speedy duo hasn’t been on the field together yet, but their games seem to play off each other well. Fuller has established himself as one of the NFL’s best deep-ball wide receivers, challenging defenses vertically while Waddle’s best asset might be how explosive he is with the ball in his hands after the catch, threatening defenses horizontally and vertically.

The Dolphins have had their eyes on Waddle for the past couple of years. His skill set features a rare combination of elite speed, run-after-catch and return ability. That’s why he was the Dolphins’ pick at No. 6 overall in the 2021 NFL draft. Pre-draft comparisons to Kansas City Chiefs star wide receiver Tyreek Hill give the Dolphins something to dream about once Waddle hits his stride.

“I get a lot of comparisons to Tyreek, just because of my small size and being able to be a runner,” Waddle said. “But I want to be my own player and try to play the game that I play and try to do my own style and not try to emulate someone else’s style. I’m going to try to be the player that I always have and try to make plays for the team.”

If Waddle plays his style and Fuller his, this Dolphins’ offense in 2021 will force defenses into those exact tough chess decisions Flores keeps envisioning.

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