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Maximum prime-time exposure for Green Bay Packers, who snare five night games amid uncertain status of Aaron Rodgers



The NFL has assigned five prime-time games to the Green Bay Packers for the 2021 season, one of the most notable revelations in its frenzied leaguewide schedule reveal Wednesday night.

The Packers were one of 10 teams to receive maximum prime-time exposure, a list that also included the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Dallas Cowboys, who will play in the NFL’s Sept. 9 kickoff game at Raymond James Stadium. But the Packers’ inclusion was significant, considering the uncertain status of reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers. While NFL schedule makers don’t have special insight into team operations, it’s unlikely that the Packers would be featured as prominently in the league’s initial schedule if second-year player Jordan Love had already been named their starter.

Speaking to the Packers’ website about the prime-time games, Packers coach Matt LaFleur said: “That’s a good thing for us. That means we’re doing some good things. We just have to make sure we’re doing everything in our power from all offseason into training camp, making sure we’re ready to play come Week 1.”

The NFL does have an out, however. The final two night games – against the Bears in Week 13 and Vikings in Week 16 on Sunday nights — come after flex scheduling kicks in. So if Rodgers doesn’t play for the Packers or if they’re out of a contention with Love or some other quarterback, they could get flexed out.

In addition to the Packers, Buccaneers and Cowboys, other teams to have the full five prime-time games include the Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs, Pittsburgh Steelers, Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints.

The Buccaneers will play one of the most anticipated games of the year at the New England Patriots on a Sunday night in Week 4, with quarterback Tom Brady making his return to Foxboro. Based on his performance in Weeks 1-3, it’s possible that Brady could overtake Drew Brees as the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards in that game.

The NFL for the first time released its Week 1 schedule during national morning news shows, revealing, among other games, the Monday Night Football opener: Sept. 13 between the Ravens and Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Field. It will be the first regular season game with fans in attendance following the Raiders’ 2020 debut in Las Vegas during the COVID-19 pandemic.

NFL teams have known their 2021 opponents since the end of last season, but the league’s annual schedule day makes a spectacle of announcing the order, kickoff times and broadcast network for each of its 272 games. NFL owners have approved the addition of a 17th regular season week, beginning in 2021. The season will extend until January 9, 2022. Super Bowl LVI will be played Feb. 13, 2022, the latest day in a calendar year that the NFL has ever concluded its season.

The day’s reveals also included confirmation that the league will resume its international schedule, albeit at a slower pace, after canceling it altogether in 2020. Both games will be at London’s Tottenham Hotspur Stadium: The New York Jets will play the Atlanta Falcons in Week 5, and the Miami Dolphins will take on the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 6. The Falcons and Jaguars will give home games as part of the league’s international scheduling system.

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Who steps up for Saints’ offense without Drew Brees, Michael Thomas? – New Orleans Saints Blog



METAIRIE, La. — Replacing Drew Brees just got a whole lot more difficult.

New Orleans Saints receiver Michael Thomas is likely to miss the start of the 2021 season after having ankle surgery in June, which means whoever wins the QB battle between Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill will be without their ultimate security blanket.

To make matters worse, the Saints’ offensive cupboard was already uncomfortably bare after they parted ways with veteran receiver Emmanuel Sanders and veteran tight ends Jared Cook and Josh Hill during a salary-cap purge this offseason.

Here is a look at the most burning questions facing coach Sean Payton and New Orleans’ offense as they head into the start of training camp next week:

What is the outlook for Thomas?

The exact timetable for Thomas’ recovery and specific details of his surgery have not been defined (or why he waited until June to have surgery). But ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported in January that Thomas was expected to have surgery to repair a torn deltoid and other ligaments in the ankle that plagued him throughout all of last season.

ESPN injury analyst and physical therapist Stephania Bell said the healing of the deltoid will likely be the ultimate driver in Thomas’ progression back to football activities.

“If a high ankle injury extends to involving the deltoid ligament, which is responsible for the inner side of the ankle’s stability, it becomes more imperative to get it fixed,” Bell said. “It’s unfortunate that there was this time lapse. But ultimately if the goal is to have one of your best players performing at the highest level, this gives him the best chance to do so.”

Bell suggested that three months would be the most optimistic timeline, which could have Thomas back on the field in September. But she said it differs from player to player depending on the specific details of each surgery and each individual’s recovery. And the Saints would obviously want to make sure Thomas doesn’t rush back too soon with his long-term health in mind.

Will they add a veteran free agent?

This feels like a must, since the Saints already had a void in their receiving corps even with Thomas in the fold. Fourth-year pro Tre’Quan Smith is the Saints’ projected No. 2 receiver, with young backups like Marquez Callaway, Deonte Harris, Lil’Jordan Humphrey, Juwan Johnson and seventh-round draft choice Kawaan Baker competing for roles. But none are proven.

A veteran slot receiver would make the most sense — and there are still some good ones available, like Golden Tate, Danny Amendola and Dede Westbrook. Plus, the Saints finally have more than $10 million in cap space to work with after they recently signed offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk to an extension and restructured cornerback Marshon Lattimore’s deal.

However, the Saints also have glaring needs at cornerback and defensive tackle. So they aren’t working with an unlimited budget.

Who steps up on the current roster?

Running back Alvin Kamara is the obvious answer, since he has caught more than 80 passes in each of his four seasons. But it’s hard to imagine him stepping up even more than he did in his sensational 2020 season, when he set career highs with 1,688 yards from scrimmage and 21 touchdowns.

Smith and second-year tight end Adam Trautman are the two guys who should step into much bigger roles — and generate the most fantasy buzz as a result.

Smith, 25, has shown flashes of his big-play potential throughout his first three seasons, with a total of 14 touchdowns in 40 games played. But he has also battled injuries and inconsistency while maxing out with career highs of 34 catches and 448 yards last season. His role is secure, though. Coaches love Smith’s blocking ability and how well he has learned to play every receiver position.

The same goes for Trautman, who caught only 15 passes for 171 yards and one TD last year as a rookie. The 2020 third-rounder should be on the field a ton since the Saints value his blocking ability as much as his pass catching. Trautman (6-foot-5, 255 pounds) came on strong late last season, and the Saints were impressed enough with his development that the only other tight end they added to replace Cook and Hill was veteran blocking specialist Nick Vannett

Trautman was a terrific pass-catcher at Dayton, with 70 catches for 916 yards and four TDs as a senior.

Callaway and Harris are the other names to consider in deeper fantasy leagues. Callaway (6-foot-2, 204) earned a roster spot last year as an undrafted rookie — and stepped up in a big way with eight catches for 75 yards in a game when both Thomas and Sanders were sidelined. And the Saints have talked for the last two years about getting the dynamic Harris (5-6, 170) more involved in their offense after he has been so good as a return specialist.

How will this affect Winston and Hill?

This hurts either quarterback quite a bit, obviously. Thomas was every bit as much of a go-to guy for Saints backups Hill and Teddy Bridgewater as he was for Brees over the past two years when they filled in as injury replacements. Even hobbled by his ankle injury last year, Thomas still had two games with nine catches and more than 100 receiving yards with Hill at quarterback.

The physical 6-foot-3, 212-pounder leads all NFL receivers with a catch rate of 80.9% over the past three years — four percentage points ahead of anyone else. That kind of reliability can’t be replaced.

However, Winston and Hill could both bring unique elements to New Orleans’ offense. Hill could obviously rely on his running ability quite a bit, and Winston should look to attack defenses deep down the field with his big arm more than Brees did in his later years with the Saints.

And one area of the Saints’ offense that hasn’t been depleted is their loaded offensive line, led by All-Pro tackles Terron Armstead and Ramczyk. That’s an underrated reason why New Orleans should still be a playoff contender.

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Rick Dennison out as Minnesota Vikings assistant after refusing COVID-19 vaccine, sources say



EAGAN, Minn. — After refusing to receive a vaccine for COVID-19, Rick Dennison is out as a Minnesota Vikings assistant coach, sources told ESPN on Friday.

Dennison, who had served as the Vikings’ offensive line coach/run game coordinator the past two seasons, is believed to be the first NFL position coach to leave his team after choosing not to receive a vaccine.

The vaccine is required for all Tier 1 staff, including coaches, front-office executives, equipment managers and scouts. Players are not required to receive the COVID-19 vaccine but will face strict protocols during training camp and throughout the season that vaccinated players will be able to forgo.

In a memo released by the league this summer, the NFL said any unvaccinated Tier 1 staff member must provide a valid religious or medical reason for not receiving the vaccine. Losing Tier 1 status prohibits coaches from being on the field and in meeting rooms and having direct interactions with players.

Phil Rauscher has been promoted from assistant offensive line coach to fill Dennison’s position, sources told ESPN. The Vikings also hired Ben Steele, who had recently been hired by Auburn as a special teams analyst, to fill the position Rauscher had held since 2019.

Dennison’s departure comes at a time of transition for the Vikings’ offense, which will be guided by first-year offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak. Kubiak, 34, was promoted to fill the role his father, Gary, held in Minnesota during the 2020 season.

With 27 years of NFL coaching experience, Dennison was considered a vital piece in helping bridge the gap for the younger Kubiak, given his experience calling run plays and knowledge of the scheme the Vikings have used since the 2019 season.

The Vikings were one of the league’s prominent running teams in 2020 behind Dalvin Cook, who became the first Minnesota player to rush for at least 1,500 yards and 15 touchdowns in a season. Cook was responsible for 30.5% of the Vikings’ scrimmage yards, the second-highest rate in the NFL behind Tennessee’s Derrick Henry (33.8), according to ESPN Stats & Information data.

Dennison, 63, worked with Gary Kubiak for more than three decades in Denver (1995-2009, 2015-16), Houston (2010-13) and Baltimore (2014). Before joining the Vikings in 2019, Dennison served as offensive line coach/run game coordinator for the New York Jets in 2018.

Rauscher is entering his seventh season as a coach in the NFL after joining the Vikings in 2020. He coached with Dennison on the Broncos staff during the 2015 and 2016 seasons and was Washington‘s offensive line coach in 2019.

Steele was on several NFL rosters as a tight end from 2001 to 2007, including in Houston under Gary Kubiak. He began working in the NFL in 2013 as an offensive quality control coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a position he held until 2016. Steele was later promoted to tight ends coach for the Buccaneers before moving to the Atlanta Falcons, where he was an offensive assistant in 2019 and tight ends coach in 2020. He was hired by Auburn earlier this year.

The Vikings will hold their first training camp practice Wednesday.

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Sources — Miami Dolphins signing ex-Seattle Seahawks LB Shaquem Griffin to one-year deal



MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The Miami Dolphins are signing former Seattle Seahawks linebacker Shaquem Griffin to a one-year deal after a successful team visit, sources told ESPN.

Griffin had his left hand amputated at age 4 because of amniotic band syndrome, a congenital condition that has left him frequently in pain and with limited function. Now, he joins the Dolphins right before training camp with hopes of making the roster.

The signing doesn’t guarantee Griffin will be on the Dolphins’ final 2021 roster, but it does give him an opportunity to use his pass rush ability and special-teams acumen to compete for a depth role. Griffin wasn’t tendered by the Seahawks as a restricted free agent this past spring, so he became an unrestricted free agent. After visiting multiple teams this offseason, he has found a home in Miami.

Griffin became the first player with one hand to be drafted in the NFL’s modern era when the Seahawks chose him in the fifth round in 2018, reuniting him with his twin brother, Shaquill Griffin.

He proved to be more than just a draft-day feel-good story. He made the Seahawks’ roster out of training camp in 2018 and ’19 and was among their top special-teams contributors in each season. He also showed flashes late in 2019 as a pass-rusher when the Seahawks began using him off the edge in sub packages, reprising the role in which he excelled during his college career at UCF.

Griffin had a pressure on Jared Goff that led to an errant throw and a Quandre Diggs pick-six in a loss to the Rams in December 2019. He got his first career sack in Seattle’s playoff loss at Green Bay the next month. He began last season on Seattle’s practice squad before appearing in 14 games with 1 sack, 9 tackles and 3 QB hits.

If he makes the Dolphins’ roster, Griffin could get more of an opportunity to rush the passer in a variety of ways in coach Brian Flores’ multiple, heavy-blitz scheme rather than just off the edge as he did frequently in Seattle. He would also be much closer to his brother, who signed a three-year, $40 million deal with the Jaguars this offseason.

Over three seasons with Seattle, Griffin appeared in 46 regular-season games, recording 1 sack, 25 tackles and 6 QB hits. His lone start came in his NFL debut in 2018.

NFL Network was the first to report the signing. Dolphins players are scheduled to report to training camp Tuesday.

ESPN’s Brady Henderson contributed to this story.

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