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FRISCO, Texas — As the Dallas Cowboys head to Indianapolis this week for the NFL scouting combine, they do so without the cachet of a first-round pick.

The Cowboys, who saw Amari Cooper’s production soar after acquiring him in a trade with the Oakland Raiders for their 2019 first-round pick, do not have any buyer’s remorse. Not having a top pick does take some of the juice away from the draft process — at least for those who are consumed with mock drafts.


But successful drafts are not judged solely by a first-round pick.

The Cowboys built their success early in the Bill Parcells era not just by selecting Terence Newman with the fifth overall pick in 2003. They found Jason Witten in the third round of that draft, and he became the franchise leader in receptions, receiving yards and games played, and earned 11 Pro Bowl trips. In the fourth round, they drafted linebacker Bradie James, who was a seven-year starter. And there was also a quarterback named Tony Romo, whom the Cowboys signed as an undrafted free agent. Maybe you’ve heard of him.

The Dallas Cowboys, under coach Jason Garrett and owner/GM Jerry Jones, will enter the 2019 draft without a first-round pick. Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports
In 2005, Dallas had two first-round picks and took the franchise leader in sacks, DeMarcus Ware, with the 11th overall pick. At No. 20, they took Marcus Spears, who had a solid run. But in Rounds 2 through 7, they selected Kevin Burnett, Marion Barber, Chris Canty and Jay Ratliff, and all of them became either Pro Bowlers, starters or key contributors.

Since Jason Garrett became the full-time coach, the Cowboys’ draft classes have spawned multiple success stories. In 2011, it was with Tyron Smith, Bruce Carter, DeMarco Murray and Dwayne Harris as all-timers, Pro Bowlers and solid pieces. In 2013, it was Travis Frederick, Terrance Williams and J.J. Wilcox.

The Cowboys’ draft success has ballooned since 2014, when Will McClay was named vice president of player personnel and took over the draft room.

Four of their past five first-rounders have played in the Pro Bowl (Zack Martin, Byron Jones, Ezekiel Elliott and Leighton Vander Esch). The second round has borne more hits in DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory (although multiple suspensions do not make him a bankable commodity yet), Jaylon Smith, Chidobe Awuzie and Connor Williams.

More important, there have been mid- and late-round successes in Anthony Hitchens (fourth round, 2014), Damien Wilson (fourth round, 2015), Geoff Swaim (seventh round, 2015), Xavier Woods (sixth round, 2017), Noah Brown (seventh round, 2017) and, in 2018, Michael Gallup (third), Dorance Armstrong (fourth) and Dalton Schultz (fourth).

But the 2016 draft has set up as one of the best in team history, and not just because they got Elliott with the fourth overall pick.

At the end of the 2018 season, all but one pick from that draft class were on the active roster, although Darius Jackson had been cut twice and spent time with the Green Bay Packers last season before rejoining the team’s practice squad.

Jaylon Smith started every game and finished second on the defense in tackles in 2018. When healthy, Maliek Collins (third) has produced. Dak Prescott, a fourth-round supplemental pick, has started every game of his career and twice been named to the Pro Bowl. Anthony Brown, a sixth-rounder, is coming off his best season. Kavon Frazier has been a solid special teamer and part-timer on defense.


When: April 25-27
Where: Nashville, Tennessee
How to watch: ABC/ESPN/ESPN App

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Collins, Prescott and Brown all earned the proven-performance escalator by playing in more than 35 percent of the snaps in two of their first three seasons, which will take their base salary from $720,000 to a little more than $2 million this year. Only two other teams (Packers and Chiefs) had more players selected in Rounds 3 through 7 in 2016 earn the escalator.

“I think we have a good feel for how we want this team to look, the kind of guys we want on this team, what we value in players. And I think we’ve been disciplined to drafting those kind of guys over the last number of years,” Garrett said at the end of the 2018 season. “That allows you to build a team like we have right now. A lot of good young players who love playing football, love being part of a team, willing to work at it. Ultimately, when you have those kind of guys on your team, they can hold up over the course of the successes and the adversities of a 17-game NFL season. I think we’ve done a good job of that. The 2016 draft was excellent for us. Obviously, some big marquee players in that draft, guys that make a huge difference for us.

“Again, that’s how we want to build this team. That’s the vision for the football team and we have a lot of guys who are like that.”

The last time the Cowboys did not have a first-round pick came in 2009, as a result of the previous season’s trade for wide receiver Roy Williams from the Detroit Lions. It turned into one of the most forgettable drafts in recent memory, with not one of their 12 picks that year turning into a full-time starter.

They made the mistake of looking at that process as a “special teams” draft, with a roster loaded and coming off two playoff appearances in three years.

In a salary-cap world, teams can’t keep every player they want to keep. Hitchens was too costly as a free agent when he signed with the Chiefs. Wilson could fall into a similar category as a free agent in March. In 2020, Collins and Brown could fall into that spot as well.

These Cowboys are coming off two playoff appearances in the past three seasons as well and must look to the draft, with or without a first-round pick, as their lifeblood.

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ATLANTA — The Super Bowl is over, and to paraphrase one of its head coaches, we are on to 2019.

That’s right. Let someone else sweep up the confetti, plan the parade and discuss the impact of Super Bowl LIII on various individuals’ legacies. We are looking ahead, into a long-distance crystal ball that reveals what will happen over the next calendar year in the NFL.


Way-too-early 2019 NFL Power Rankings
Super Bowl LIII is in the books, but we’re already on to the 2019 season. Who is at the top of our projection? Here’s how our experts have the league stacked.

Even though it’s way too early, even though almost none of last year’s predictions from this column came true (though some did!), and even though fans of teams that played deep into January and early February might not have switched their minds to offseason mode, we nevertheless present to you 10 bold predictions for 2019.

Please take them in the spirit in which they are intended.

1. The Jaguars will acquire Nick Foles, somehow, but still miss the playoffs
This is not to diminish the talents of Mr. Foles, and woe unto the rest of the AFC South if those teams let him hang in contention until mid-December. But the Jaguars team we predict Foles to be joining is not of the same caliber as the Eagles teams for which he performed his late-season and postseason magic the past two years. I believe the Eagles will work with Foles and allow him to have some say in where he ends up.

I also believe they’re wary of him ending up in the NFC East with Washington or the Giants, and directing him to a faraway AFC destination like Jacksonville will be more appealing to Howie Roseman & Co. Jacksonville’s hiring of former Eagles QBs coach John DeFilippo as offensive coordinator could make the Jags appealing to Foles as well.

ESPN Illustration

2. The Texans will sign Le’Veon Bell to a deal that eclipses Todd Gurley’s
Bell didn’t just sit out a whole season to take a penny less than the four-year, $57.5 million contract Gurley signed with the Rams last summer. And in spite of that missed season, Bell will have a market for his services. The Jets, 49ers and Texans are all in it, but Houston wins out by selling Bell on what he can do in an offense that features Deshaun Watson at quarterback and DeAndre Hopkins at wide receiver.

The Texans must — and likely will — address the offensive line in free agency and the draft. But Bell is what my colleague Bill Polian calls a “BYOB” back (bring your own blocking). He can help elevate the Texans’ offense to where it needs to be to compete for an AFC title.

3. Antonio Brown will lead the league in receptions with the San Francisco 49ers
The odds strongly favor Pittsburgh trading Brown this offseason. Releasing him would allow a conference rival like Baltimore or New England to get him, and that’s not in the Steelers’ interests at all. So shipping him off to an NFC West team makes more sense. San Francisco has the cap space to give Brown a new contract if he wants one, and there’s no doubt Brown knows all about what Julio Jones did in Atlanta two years ago as the No. 1 wide receiver in a Kyle Shanahan offense.

Russell Wilson’s next contract should be a record-breaker. Lawrence Iles/Icon Sportswire

4. Russell Wilson becomes the highest-paid player in the NFL
Wilson’s contract runs out after the 2019 season, and the Seahawks aren’t going to want to let him enter that final year without an extension. Given Wilson’s performance and durability, there’s absolutely no reason for him to sign any contract that doesn’t surpass those of Aaron Rodgers (four years, $134 million), Matt Ryan (five years, $150 million) and Kirk Cousins (three years, $84 million). What the industry is watching is to see how much of the deal he can get guaranteed.

What is Foles’ future?ESPN’s Adam Schefter breaks down how the Eagles plan to move QB Nick Foles this offseason.

5. The NFL establishes some sort of video review system that pertains to penalties
In spite of the furor over the non-call at the end of the Saints-Rams NFC Championship Game, there’s no way the league owners will approve a system that allows coaches to challenge penalty calls (or, in this case, non-calls). Pandora’s box. However, there’s enough push from enough people connected to the league that the NFL likely will find a way to assist officials in egregious cases such as the one in New Orleans.

It could be an extra official in a replay booth at the game who radios down to the referee to change or help with a call. Could be oversight from the league office in New York that allows it. The drumbeat of “Use the technology at your disposal” will become too much to ignore, even though the changes might not be as extensive as many of you might like.

Now that Freddie Kitchens is head coach, can the Browns and QB Baker Mayfield take the next step? Ken Blaze/USA TODAY Sports

6. The Cleveland Browns will win the AFC North
I think this is going to be a popular one come summertime, so let’s get out ahead of it. Cleveland went 5-2 over its final seven games in 2018 with Baker Mayfield at quarterback and Freddie Kitchens running the offense. Kitchens is now the head coach, Mayfield is, of course, still the quarterback, the defense is still stocked with young stars and the offense has enough around Mayfield to make the Browns a legit contender. The Browns have the third-most projected cap space and eight picks within the first five rounds of April’s draft with which to bolster their roster.

One year ago, Dan Graziano predicted …

Andrew Luck returns and plays all 16 games for the Colts: “Luck looks like a pretty good candidate to beat out J.J. Watt, David Johnson, Aaron Rodgers and others in one of the most crowded Comeback Player of the Year races in history.” (Luck won Comeback Player of the Year Saturday night.)

As you likely figured out by reading Items 2 and 3 above, things are falling apart a bit in Pittsburgh. And I predict some more growing pains for Lamar Jackson in Baltimore (though I still like him long term). Cleveland’s third-place schedule will help too. For instance, the Browns get to play the Broncos while the Ravens have to play the Chiefs and the Steelers have to play the Chargers.

7. The other new playoff teams will be the Vikings, Titans and 49ers
Minnesota’s offense clicks better in Kirk Cousins’ second season there. The AFC South starts to look like the league’s new power division, with Tennessee pushing the Colts and Texans. And assuming Jimmy Garoppolo gets through the season healthy, another busy and productive offseason should put San Francisco in position to make some noise.

The 2018 playoff teams whose places these three take are the Bears, Colts and Cowboys, respectively. The Eagles reassert themselves atop a once-again-weak NFC East.


When: April 25-27
Where: Nashville, Tennessee
How to watch: ABC/ESPN/ESPN App

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8. Four quarterbacks get drafted in the first round
They are Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins, Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray, Missouri’s Drew Lock and Duke’s Daniel Jones, maybe in that order. What’s interesting about this year is that none of the top three teams (or likely the fourth) are in desperate need of a quarterback. So QB-needy teams such as the Giants, Dolphins, Broncos and Washington might end up dealing extra picks to move up to get ahead of each other and snag the guy they like.

Add in later-picking teams such as the Patriots and Chargers that might consider drafting a long-term replacement for their incumbent, and you could have a very interesting, maneuver-heavy first round.

9. There will be no formal talks about an extension to the collective bargaining agreement
The players’ union continues to have no motivation to come to the table and talk about the extension the owners want to the current deal, which runs out after 2020. The relationship between the two sides is badly broken, and there seems to be a chasm between what the owners expect the players to want (stop testing for marijuana, for example) and what the players actually want (a role in the TV rights negotiations over deals expiring in 2021 and 2022, for example). At this time next year, there will be a lot of talk about a looming work stoppage after the 2020 season.

10. The Saints will defeat the Texans in Super Bowl LIV
Yeah, it’s crazy not to pick the Patriots to win the AFC at this point, but a way-too-early predictions column isn’t the place to take the easy way out. As for the Saints, we’re doubling down here. I thought last year that they’d rebound from the heartbreaking end to their 2017 season and reach the Super Bowl, and I was painfully close to being right. More heartbreak this time, same stacked roster and Hall of Fame quarterback. Drew Brees finally gets that second ring after being oh-so-close two years in a row.

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EAGAN, Minn. — Around the time of the Minnesota Vikings’ spring offseason workouts, Kirk Cousins discovered something about his new team that he wasn’t expecting. Despite his veteran quarterback status, the seven-year NFL veteran Cousins figured it would take time before he’d be accepted as a leader. After all, he was joining a team that was coming off a 13-3 season. There were already plenty of leaders in this locker room.

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“I was surprised by how much my teammates gave me that license to lead quickly,” Cousins said at the start of training camp. “I thought they were going to want to have me prove myself a little bit longer than maybe I had to. They were very supportive and said, ‘No, man. It’s your show. Let’s go.’”

Cousins’ personality doesn’t always lend itself to him being the most vocal person on the team. At times, he says he’ll speak up and share his opinion if he feels compelled to, but Cousins considers himself more of a “reluctant” leader.

Two weeks ago in Philadelphia, Cousins was given a chance to step outside of his comfort zone. Prior to the Vikings’ rematch of the NFC Championship Game against the Philadelphia Eagles, defensive tackle Linval Joseph, a locker room leader and captain, asked Cousins to break down the pregame huddle.

It was a responsibility the Vikings had rotated among several players over the first four games but had often been the job bestowed upon Everson Griffen. The Pro Bowl defensive end excelled in playing off raw emotion and expletive-laden passion to get his guys ready to run through a wall, a la the speech he delivered ahead of the Vikings’ win in Washington last season, a game he missed because of a foot injury.

With Griffen away from the team dealing with issues related to his mental health, the opportunity became Joseph’s. And he passed the baton to Cousins.

“It was important because Linval asked me to, and you don’t say no to Linval,” Cousins said.

Cousins, whose fiery personality is seen often by his teammates but seldom in public, dove into an impassioned pregame speech, emphasizing finishing every block, every tackle, every play, and above all else, the need to “finish the damn game.”

Kirk Cousins “is a guy who is going to go lay it out there,” says teammate Harrison Smith. Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY Sports
The Vikings beat the defending Super Bowl champions 23-21. The following week against Arizona, all it took was a point from Joseph during warm-ups for Cousins to know his teammates wanted a repeat performance.

This time, the huddle was so fired up from Cousins’ message that they almost didn’t let him finish his final thought.

“Like Dan Gable said,” Cousins yelled, quoting the longtime Iowa wrestling coach, “when I shoot, I score. When you shoot, I score.”

The Vikings brought Cousins to Minnesota to carry this team to new heights as the face of the franchise. Cousins is the focal point of this team, its aspirations and how it will overcome the challenges in its path.

“I think people always look to the quarterback to be the offensive leader and he’s stepped in,” right guard Mike Remmers said. “He’s the kind of guy that you know you can count on to get the job done.”

Cousins is working to become the undeniable leader for a team that hasn’t had a consistent veteran presence at quarterback since the days of Daunte Culpepper, who was drafted by Minnesota 11th overall in 1999 and was with the franchise through the 2005 season.

Since then, the position has lacked stability with eight different starting QBs. The short and uncertain nature of Brett Favre’s time with the Vikings didn’t allow him to fully assume that veteran leadership role. Had he stayed healthy, Teddy Bridgewater, who was universally loved by the coaching staff and locker room, was on his way to assuming that responsibility for the long haul.

“There was a while I thought Teddy was going to be my guy for the rest of my coaching career and he would still be here and I’d be fired,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “Then I thought Sam (Bradford) was going to be the guy. Then I thought Case (Keenum) was going to be the guy. In the offseason we did a study on really those four guys. I knew Kirk from playing against him. The thing that I love about this guy is his passion for the game, his intensity that he has. He’s come in here and taken charge as a leader.”

The ability to deliver a great message is just the beginning. Over the course of three seasons (and likely beyond), Cousins’ leadership will be judged by how he handles his team when situations don’t go as planned and the accountability he shoulders, whether the blame is on him or not.

On the field, quarterback leadership is defined in areas like the two-minute drill, where 10 other players know the person under center has the wherewithal to come through in pressure situations. It’s seen in the trust the quarterback has to develop with his playmakers, much like he’s done with Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. They have to know he’ll go back to them even if they’ve made a mistake (like the confidence Cousins instilled in Laquon Treadwell after multiple drops in Green Bay).

Cousins is growing comfortable as a leader in Minnesota because he’s doing it the way that fits his style. So far, it’s living up to expectations.

“He walks the talk,” safety Harrison Smith said. “He is a guy who is going to go lay it out there, run the ball for a touchdown, dive on third down, stand in the pocket and get hit by 300-pounders. No matter what, the guy gives everything he has. He is the real deal.”

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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has drawn criticism from an unlikely source for his less-than-enthusiastic approach to lining up at wide receiver when Lamar Jackson comes in as the QB.

“My wife gave me crap the one day, told me I need to look more interested out there,” Flacco said Wednesday. “But I’m just trying to stay out of it. I’m not comfortable out there. I don’t need to get too creative.”

“… I’m just trying to stay out of it. I’m not comfortable out there. I don’t need to get too creative.”
Joe Flacco, on lining up at WR
Flacco has said that he supports any plays that help the offense gain yards, which is a more diplomatic stance than in previous years. In 2013, Flacco ripped the use of the Wildcat offense with then-backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor, calling it a “high school offense.”

This year, defenses usually put one defender on Flacco, but the Super Bowl-winning quarterback acknowledged he isn’t doing much to trick teams.

“You can see me. I’m out there just standing,” Flacco said. “I really just try to stay out of the way of everything. That’s what I’m told to do. That’s what I’m doing.”

The last time Flacco played wide receiver on a regular basis was in middle school, when he first played football. Flacco has two career catches in the NFL, including one that went for 43 yards against Oakland in 2008, his rookie season.

Asked if there is any scenario in which he will catch a pass this season, Flacco said with a laugh, “I sure hope not.”

If defenses don’t cover Flacco, coach John Harbaugh said the Ravens will throw a pass to the 11-year veteran. Ravens players believe that could happen.

“He’s just luring defenses to sleep,” running back Alex Collins said. “He said he was afraid earlier, but he might be catching some passes if they’re not paying attention to him. That’s a good thing. Let him keep tricking them over there.”

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NFL Nation reporters assess the biggest injuries across the league for Week 3.

Scan through all 32 teams by division, or click here to jump ahead to your team:


Buffalo Bills

Running back LeSean McCoy (cracked rib cartilage) and wide reciver Kelvin Benjamin (hip) were both limited in practice Wednesday. McCoy wore a non-contact jersey and said he would decide by Friday or Saturday whether he is able to run full speed without pain in Sunday’s game at Minnesota. If he cannot play, Marcus Murphy and Chris Ivory would likely split carries. McDermott said Benjamin had a “little bit of a hip” that did not seem to obviously hamper him when reporters were at practice Wednesday. — Mike Rodak

Miami Dolphins

Safety Reshad Jones suffered a right shoulder injury Sunday and missed practice on Wednesday. The good news is it isn’t the same left shoulder that he had surgery on in 2016. Adam Gase considers Jones “day-to-day” and he’s hoping Jones progresses enough to play on Sunday vs. Raiders. DeVante Parker was a full participant in practice again Wednesday, and is expected to make his season debut Sunday. Gase held him out one more week to be safe as Parker recovers from a broken middle finger. — Cameron Wolfe


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New England Patriots

Starting safety Patrick Chung and starting defensive end Trey Flowers both left Sunday’s loss in Jacksonville with concussions, and they didn’t practice on Wednesday. Given the often unpredictable nature of concussion recoveries, the Patriots have to plan being without them, while starting right tackle Marcus Cannon is still being held back by a calf strain and might need more time. Chung’s value to the Patriots was summed up by coach Bill Belichick, who said, “We’re fortunate that we have one Pat Chung. To have two Pat Chung’s would be pretty much impossible, so it would be multiple people to do all the things that he does.” — Mike Reiss

New York Jets

Saftey Marcus Maye (foot) is not expected to play Thursday night, which will be his third straight game on the sideline. Once again, Doug Middleton will start for Maye, whose injury is more serious than initially reported. The pass defense has held up well in his absence. — Rich Cimini


Baltimore Ravens

Running back Alex Collins missed Wednedsay’s practice with an illness. If this was serious, Baltimore would’ve likely made a move to add another running back. The only healthy back with experience is Javorius Allen. The bigger concern is the run defense. Middle linebacker C.J. Mosley (knee) is likely out Sunday, and defensive tackle Michael Pierce (foot) didn’t practice Wednesday, which leaves Baltimore with four healthy defensive linemen. That could prove a problem against Denver and the NFL’s No. 2 rushing attack. — Jamison Hensley

Cincinnati Bengals

Center Billy Price is in a walking boot with a foot injury that will be reevaluated in two weeks, meaning Trey Hopkins will take his spot. But it’s a mystery who will take Hopkins’ place if he goes down. Guard Clint Boling could be a candidate to move over in an emergency. Meanwhile, running back Giovani Bernard is prepared to shoulder the workload for Joe Mixon, who had a procedure done on his knee and is out for at least two weeks. Mixon said his timetable to return is essentially when he feels comfortable running and making cuts again without pain. — Katherine Terrell

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Cleveland Browns

Defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah will miss his second game, and linebacker Chris Kirksey is doubtful, which means the defense will be without its second-best pass rusher and best overall linebacker. The defense played well without them when facing Drew Brees on Sunday; it may find the same success against rookie QB Sam Darnold on Thursday. — Pat McManamon

Pittsburgh Steelers

Guard David DeCastro is in danger of missing his second straight game with a fractured hand that hasn’t fully healed. Teammate Alejandro Villanueva said DeCastro will be fine after leaving the practice field in pain Wednesday. But corner Joe Haden (hamstring) should be available for Monday Night Football against the Bucs. The hamstring is no longer a major issue, as Haden looks to practice in full this week. — Jeremy Fowler


Houston Texans

Jadeveon Clowney (back) was again a limited participant in the Texans’ Wednesday practice. The defensive end missed Sunday’s loss to the Titans with the injury, and head coach Bill O’Brien said it’s too early in the week to know whether Clowney will play in Week 3. — Sarah Barshop

Indianapolis Colts

Take your choice: Receiver T.Y. Hilton (quad), tight end Jack Doyle (hip), running back Marlon Mack (foot/hamstring) or safety Clayton Geathers (knee/elbow). All four players did not practice Wednesday. Hilton is the biggest concern for the Colts, because he leads the team in receptions (12) and receiving yards (129). Durability has been a strongsuit of Hilton, as he has only missed two games in his six-plus years in the NFL. — Mike Wells

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Jacksonville Jaguars

Running back Leonard Fournette (hamstring) returned to practice for the first time since getting hurt in the season opener, and that’s good news for his chances of playing on Sunday. Losing left taclke Cam Robinson to a torn left ACL was a blow, but the team believes they’ll be okay with fourth-year player Josh Wells stepping in as the starter. Still, expect the Jaguars to give him help — a tight end lined up next to him or backs chipping, for example — against Titans pass-rusher Brian Orakpo on Sunday. Two of Orakpo’s seven sacks last season came against the Jaguars. — Michael DiRocco

Tennessee Titans

The biggest injury question mark for the Titans involves quarterback Marcus Mariota (elbow). Mariota is experiencing tingling in two of the fingers on his right hand. The discomfort is keeping him from gripping the ball, though he seemed to be more comfortable throwing during the open portion of practice on Wednesday. Head coach Mike Vrabel said he is going to monitor the situation and make a decision at the end of the week. Vrabel indicated that he is comfortable going with backup Blaine Gabbert if he has to. — Turron Davenport


Denver Broncos

Quarterback Case Keenum on knee soreness that kept him out of Wednesday’s practice: “I woke up Monday a little sore, so I could have practiced today, I wanted to practice, but they wouldn’t let me … Come back and be ready to go (Thursday).” Chad Kelly worked with the starting offense Wednesday, including the team’s walk-through. Keenum reiterated, however, he expects to practice the remainder of the week and play Sunday in Baltimore. Meanwhile, cornerback Adam Jones (thigh), linebacker Brandon Marshall (knee) and tackle Jared Veldheer (concussion) did not practice on Wednesday. Coach Vance Joseph said he was “hopeful” Jones and Marshall would be ready to play Sunday in Baltimore. Veldheer is in the concussion protocol, and Joseph said the OT has not yet been cleared for additional activity. It was the first practice of the season the Broncos have had any players held out due to injuries. — Jeff Legwold

Kansas City Chiefs

Safety Eric Berry looks to be at least another week away from playing after he missed practice on Wednesday. The defense took another hit when its most versatile lineman, Chris Jones, sat out practice because of a groin strain. Not having Jones would be a problem on Sunday against the 49ers. The Chiefs don’t have much depth on the defensive line, and Jones has played in more snaps this season than any of their other linemen. — Adam Teicher

Los Angeles Chargers

Wide receiver Travis Benjamin was a game-time decision not to play last week against the Bills due to a foot injury. However, the Miami product was a limited participant in practice on Wednesday, an indication that the Chargers could have their speedy receiver available when they face one of the top defenses in the league in the Battle of Los Angeles on Sunday. — Eric D. Williams

Oakland Raiders

Rookie defensive tackle P.J. Hall is not expected to play in Miami this weekend, as the second-round draft pick continues to rehab his injured left ankle. Hall was injured in the season opener against the Rams and missed last weekend’s game at Denver. The Raiders had to put nose tackle Justin Ellis on injured reserve with a foot injury last week, and signed a pair of defensive tackles, in Clinton McDonald and Johnathan Hankins. McDonald responded with two pressures in 32 pass-rush snaps in Denver, per Pro Football Focus. — Paul Gutierrez


Sean Lee did not practice Wednesday because of a hamstring injury that cropped up late in the win against the Giants, raising some question to his availability this week. He could have returned to the game if necessary, according to Jason Garrett, but the coaches opted to hold him out. The Cowboys went 1-4 in the five games Lee missed last season with hamstring strains, but they feel they are better protected at linebacker with the additions of Leighton Vander Esch and Joe Thomas this season. Lee was on the field during the portion of practice open to the media Wednesday. — Todd Archer

New York Giants

Outside linebacker Olivier Vernon (ankle) and cornerback Eli Apple (groin) didn’t practice Wednesday. Apple said he’s still sore and Vernon has already missed the first two games of the season. Both are in doubt for Sunday. — Jordan Raanan

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Philadelphia Eagles

Two of the Eagles’ top running backs, Jay Ajayi (back) and Darren Spoles (hamstring), missed practice Wednesday. Coach Doug Pederson called both day-to-day, but suggested Ajayi is closer to a return. The read here is that Sproles is in jeopardy of missing another week, while Ajayi’s status will be decided closer to game day. Corey Clement had 85 total yards and a touchdown against the Bucs, and should continue to see a boost in production with his backfield partners ailing. — Tim McManus

Washington Redskins

Left guard Shawn Lauvao has a bad calf that could force him to miss a few games, coach Jay Gruden said. Lauvao has missed 22 games combined the past three years because of injuries, going on injured reserve with a neck injury for the final seven games of 2017. If Lauvao, who struggled vs. the Colts last week, doesn’t play then starting center Chase Roullier will move to left guard, while Tony Bergstrom will start at center. The Redskins did not do an adequate job of addressing their interior depth, and it could cost them early as right guard Brandon Scherff also is dealing with a knee issue. — John Keim


Chicago Bears

The Bears head into their Week 3 matchup with the Cardinals remarkably healthy. Safety DeAndre Houston-Carson, who is recovering from a broken forearm, was the only player who did not practice on Wednesday. It seems the Bears’ only issue on the health front is getting Khalil Mack and Roquan Smith into better game shape after both went through holdouts. staff

Detroit Lions

As expected after suffering a concussion Sunday against San Francisco, cornerback Darius Slay didn’t practice Wednesday. That the Lions re-signed DeShawn Shead is also a sign that the All-Pro might not be ready for the Patriots — which has to be concerning for Detroit’s ability to handle outside receivers (particularly if Josh Gordon ends up playing). It’s going to bear watching the rest of the week, since concussions are hard to predict. Detroit did get some better news in that defensive end Ezekiel Ansah (shoulder) and offensive lineman T.J. Lang (back) participated on a limited basis. The Lions could use the two veterans against one of the NFL’s top teams. Returner Jamal Agnew (shoulder) was also limited, but no reason at this point to think he won’t be available. — Michael Rothstein


The NFL’s most unbalanced teams — and how they can fix it
Some teams can light up the scoreboards. Others can shut down the opposition. Some can do both, but these teams skew heavily one way or the other.

The Earl Thomas dilemma: NFL execs explore what’s next
Should Seattle trade Thomas? Re-sign him? Let him walk in the offseason? Use the franchise tag? And is Thomas still as good as ever at age 29?

Green Bay Packers

The Packers’ pass defense struggled after cornerback Kevin King dropped out of Sunday’s game against the Vikings because of a groin injury. It sounds like they’ll have to figure out a way to play without him this week against the Redskins. Coach Mike McCarthy said King would be “hard-pressed” to play this week, although he does not believe it’s a long-term injury. — Rob Demovsky

Minnesota Vikings

For the first time since the 2017 postseason, Pat Elflein was listed as a full participant on the injury report. If the second-year center continues to practice in full on Thursday and Friday, there’s a possibility he returns in Week 3 against Buffalo. Running back Dalvin Cook sustained a hamstring injury in Week 2 that he equated to a “cramp,” but it appears to be more than that as it kept him out of practice three days later. Cook said he’s taking things “day by day” and will see how he feels at the end of the week. Everson Griffen (knee), Rashod Hill (ankle), Marcus Sherels (chest) and David Morgan (knee) were held out of Wednesday’s practice. — Courtney Cronin


Atlanta Falcons

Any time Julio Jones pops up on the injury report, it raises some eyebrows. Well, Jones did not practice Wednesday while sidelined by a calf injury. There was no indication of Jones being injured in last week’s win over Carolina, so we’ll see how his status plays out. Jones joined running back Devonta Freeman (knee), defensive end Takk McKinley (groin), and defensive end Derrick Shelby (groin) as not practicing, as the Falcons continued preparation for the Saints. — Vaughan McClure

Carolina Panthers

The Panthers suffered two injuries in the secondary on Sunday, cornerback Donte Jackson a strained groin and safety Da’Norris Searcy a concussion. Replacing Searcy with rookie Rahsaan Gaulden or Colin Jones is easier than replacing Jackson, who has played well. The hope is that Jackson can practice on Thursday and be ready for the Bengals. — David Newton

New Orleans Saints

Starting nose tackle Tyeler Davison (foot) and linebacker Manti Te’o (knee) both missed practice Wednesday. It’s too early to determine if either is in jeopardy of missing Sunday’s game at Atlanta, but Davison was also held out last week. The Saints signed veteran defensive tackle Jay Bromley to add depth at the position. He had a solid summer performance in New Orleans before missing the 53-man cut. — Mike Triplett

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Defensive tackle Beau Allen left Sunday’s game against the Eagles with a foot injury and did not return. The Bucs have not practiced yet for the week with a Monday night game on tap, so Allen’s status is up in the air; but, considering Vita Vea hasn’t returned from his calf injury yet and Mitch Unrein is on injured reserve with a concussion, the Bucs could be very thin along their interior defensive line. Safety Chris Conte also left Sunday’s game with a knee injury and did not return, leaving the Bucs’ young defensive backfield with even less experience. — Jenna Laine


Arizona Cardinals

Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald was limited Wednesday with a hamstring injury, but coach Steve Wilks said he expects Fitzgerald to play Sunday against Chicago. However, whether Fitzgerald plays or not may not make much of a difference if he’s ineffective with a sore hamstring. Fitzgerald was taken out of last week’s game against Los Angeles because of the injury; he said afterward that he could’ve continued to play, but wouldn’t have been effective. That issue may carry over into this weekend’s game — and potentially beyond — if the injury lingers. — Josh Weinfuss

Los Angeles Rams

Pro Bowl kicker Greg Zuerlein injured his groin during pregame warmups last week, and could be sidelined between three and six weeks, coach Sean McVay said. The Rams signed Sam Ficken, who also filled in for three games last season, to take over the position. Zuerlein’s absence means the Rams are likely to alter their offensive game plan in certain situations, given Zuerlein’s extraordinary ability to make field goals from 50-plus yards. “There is a little bit of a different mindset,” McVay said. “But by no means does that mean you don’t have confidence in Sam.” — Lindsey Thiry

San Francisco 49ers

Wide receiver Marquise Goodwin is still dealing with a deep thigh bruise that kept him out last week against Detroit, but he was able to participate on a limited basis in Wednesday’s practice. Goodwin’s absence has made it tough on the Niners passing game as the other pass catchers have struggled to separate against man coverage. He’s day to day this week, but the 49ers are hopeful he’ll be back Sunday against Kansas City. Safety Jaquiski Tartt is in a similar situation, as he deals with a shoulder injury that’s bothered him the past two weeks, and he did not practice Wednesday. — Nick Wagoner

Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks could still be without receiver Doug Baldwin for at least another week, but All-Pro middle linebacker Bobby Wagner is expected to play Sunday against Dallas after missing the last game with a groin injury. While Seattle’s linebacker corps may not be fully intact yet — as K.J. Wright didn’t practice Wednesday — the team expects to have Wright’s replacement, newly signed Mychal Kendricks, available this week as he continues to appeal a suspension for his connection to insider trading. The team was pleased with how Kendricks (three tackles, sack, pass defensed) played Monday night after practicing with the team for only two days. He gives the Seahawks starting experience — at least while he’s still available — that was noticeably lacking in rookie Shaquem Griffin when he started in the opener for Wright. — Brady Henderson

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A smiling David Tepper jogged down a small makeshift runway at a crowded gymnasium, crouching as he went to slap hands with wildly cheering elementary school children clad in blue Carolina Panthers T-shirts while music blared.
After finishing his short jog, the Panthers owner smiled back at the crowd and seemed to soak in the moment.

Tepper made his first charitable donation to the Carolinas on Tuesday through his foundation, giving away 12,000 new backpacks and school supplies to 17 elementary schools across the Charlotte, North Carolina, area including those students at Thomasboro Academy.
“It’s been great,” said a smiling Tepper of his first seven weeks as owner.
The self-made multi-billionaire hedge fund owner is 60, but still remembers his days growing up in Pittsburgh in a lower-income household. His mother worked as a teacher at an inner city school, and he got to see firsthand how difficult it was for her to provide school supplies for her students.
He also remembers walking to school with a brown bag because he didn’t have a backpack. In high school he would sometimes hitch rides to school.
When he purchased the Panthers for an NFL-record $2.2 billion from Jerry Richardson in July, Tepper said he immediately thought of supporting schoolchildren, calling them “our future.”
“I thought it was a great way to start off,” said Tepper, who is known for his philanthropy in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
“Every kid needs supplies and there is a shortage of supplies. Teachers don’t have enough money for supplies — and you know the situation in North Carolina and in the Carolinas in general with schools. So whatever we can do to help that out, it’s great.”
Said Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis: “He comes in here with that same mindset we have (as players) with giving back to the community.”
Tepper is quickly becoming a popular figure in the Charlotte area.
Unlike Richardson, who is more stoic and formal and kept out of the spotlight, Tepper exudes the feel of an ordinary guy, often dressing in khaki shorts, a golf shirt and a baseball hat.
Prior to the Panthers’ first preseason game, he tailgated with fans and knocked back a few beers.
“He’s easy to talk to, he’s approachable and he likes being around the guys,” Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly said.
When he bought the Panthers, Tepper vowed to change the culture and make it more of a family atmosphere where people are comfortable in the workplace regardless of race, gender or religion.
That came after allegations surfaced of sexual and racial misconduct in the workplace by Richardson while owner of the Panthers. He was later fined $2.7 million by the NFL when reports were substantiated following a six-month investigation. The reports ultimately prompted Richardson, the team’s founder, to put the franchise up for sale.
Tepper is already shaking it up, doing things his way.
The Panthers have worn two different uniform combinations in their first two preseason home games and there’s talk of possibly incorporating a black helmet into the mix — a look Richardson would never go for.
Tepper is also expected to put the Panthers logo at midfield for the team’s first regular-season home game; Richardson always made sure the NFL shield was at midfield for more than two decades to honour the league.
Tepper wants to build an indoor/outdoor practice football facility in South Carolina, just over the border.
The Panthers have never had an indoor practice facility under Richardson.
Tepper hasn’t talked much about plans for a new stadium, but it’s something he’ll have to consider at some point as Bank of America — completed in 1995 — is now one of the older stadiums in the league.
Last week, Tepper hired Tom Glick as the team’s new president, saying he will bring a “new perspective” to the organization — with an eye toward bringing a Major League Soccer team to the Carolinas.
Glick has spent the past six years working with developing the City Football Group (CFG), a multi-national soccer organization that includes six clubs including current English Premier League champion Manchester City FC. The Group also owns New York City FC of Major League Soccer.
As chief commercial officer of CFG, Glick has experience working with soccer expansion, as well as building new stadiums and training centres.
When asked if that experience helped Glick land the job, Tepper replied, “it didn’t hurt.”
Tepper deflected other questions about business, saying he wanted this day to be about the kids.
“The first thing I did when I came down here is I said we have to do something like this in Charlotte,” Tepper said. “We are thinking something across the two states in the future. … It’s great stuff.”
And, he promised, only the beginning of his charitable ways in the Carolinas.

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Week 2 of the NFL preseason kicked off with a trio of interesting games that provided more developments in the three-way Jets quarterback race, Tom Brady’s debut and an injury to the reigning Super Bowl MVP. Thursday’s games also featured the second chapter in the Packers’ backup QB duel, Mason Rudolph’s first start and more injuries to the Redskins’ running back corps.

Here’s what we learned from Thursday’s games:

New England Patriots 37, Philadelphia Eagles 20

1. Tom Brady showed midseason form, leading the offense to 20 points in the first half while completing 19 of 26 passes for 172 yards, two touchdowns and a 116.2 passer rating. James White garnered the majority of the playing time at running back, with Phillip Dorsett, Cordarrelle Patterson and Eric Decker mixing in as complements to Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan at wide receiver. If there’s a problem area on the offensive line, it’s right tackle. Filling in for injured veteran Marcus Cannon, first-round rookie Isaiah Wynn was forced out of the game with a left ankle injury of his own.

On the other side of the ball, rookie linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley stood out for the second consecutive week. The fifth-round pick has a chance to enter the season as a starter next to Dont’a Hightower.

2. Nick Foles’ 2018 preseason debut didn’t exactly go as scripted. The reigning Super Bowl MVP was knocked out of the game with a strained shoulder, sustained on a strip sack that went for a Patriots touchdown early in the second quarter. A rusty Foles took three sacks and showed scattershot accuracy in his 18 minutes of action. He’s expected to undergo further testing Friday on the shoulder. It will be interesting to see which quarterback is under center for next week’s regular-season audition versus the Browns.

– Chris Wesseling

Washington Redskins 15, New York Jets 13
3. The Jets not only have the league’s most captivating quarterback battle, but also quite the conundrum for Week 1. Sam Darnold entered Thursday night’s game with a tailwind of momentum, the future of the franchise riding a wave of optimism after a promising preseason debut. By the start of the fourth quarter, however, it had become harder and harder to ignore the fact that Teddy Bridgewater has outplayed him for two straight weeks. Meanwhile, incumbent starter Josh McCown has played just one series this preseason, leaving his role a mystery. There might not be a more impactful preseason bout than next week’s crosstown showdown between the Jets and Giants.

4. Slimmed-down running back Rob Kelley has a new lease on life after entering training camp in a fight for a roster spot. After losing rookie Derrius Guice to an ACL tear last week, the Redskins saw power back Samaje Perine go down with an ankle injury Thursday night. Meanwhile, Kelley has started both preseason games and was the focal point of the first-team offense versus the Jets, touching the ball eight times before exiting.

Don’t sleep on undrafted wide receiver Cam Sims, who led the team with 75 receiving yards in the preseason opener. Sims had an up-and-down performance Thursday night, but showed tantalizing playmaking ability at 6-foot-5.

– Chris Wesseling

Green Bay Packers 51, Pittsburgh Steelers 34
5. Mason Rudolph didn’t have to wait long for his welcome to the NFL moment against the Packers. The rookie quarterback threw a pick-six on his first passing attempt of the game — a pass Packers cornerback Tramon Williams probably saw coming even before it left Rudolph’s hand. Rudolph’s only response was a rueful grin as he helplessly watched Williams zip 25 yards to the end zone.

After a solid debut last week, reality hit hard for the former Oklahoma State standout. Rudolph struggled to find rhythm and was hampered by inconsistent offensive line play. Outside of a 19-yard pass to Justin Hunter, Rudolph’s 5 of 12 passing for 47 yards was mostly of the dink-and-dunk variety. He’s still a contender for the Steelers backup QB spot (Mike Tomlin gave Landry Jones the night off), but Pittsburgh probably wants to see a lot more from its third-round pick next week.
Joshua Dobbs had a better overall game than Rudolph against the Packers’ second- and third-level defense. He completed 12 of 18 passes for 192 yards, 2 TDs and an interception.

6. Packers linebacker Reggie Gilbert put in quite a performance in his bid for more playing time in 2018. The third-year linebacker, who spent most of last season on Green Bay’s practice squad before a late-season promotion, tried to do his best one-man wrecking crew impersonation. Gilbert terrorized Rudolph for 2.5 sacks and recorded three tackles. He’ll need similar stat lines in order to challenge for regular-season snaps, but he’s looking very good to retain his roster spot.

7. How about those Packers tight ends? We got a demitasse-sized taste of what the Aaron Rodgers-Jimmy Graham combination will look like on a 8-yard TD pass, but there were a slew of other encouraging performances. Lance Kendricks caught a pair of passes for 28 yards, Robert Tonyan had two catches for 15 yards and a TD and Marcedes Lewis made a 23-yard catch. NFC North defensive coordinators, you’ve been warned.

– Austin Knoblauch

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They’re among the most dominant players in NFL history and they form perhaps the most colorful group of personalities to go into the Pro Football Hall of Fame at one time.

We celebrate the uniqueness of the HOF Class of 2018, which will be inducted into Canton on Saturday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN). From Ray Lewis’ iconic “Squirrel” dance to Terrell Owens’ star moment to Randy Moss’ spectacular touchdowns, we let the players take you inside key plays and moments. There’s also a quiz with quirky facts about each inductee.

Get to know the Class of 2018.


Celebrations, catches and controversy: TO’s HOF legacy
From the scrum at the star to situps in his driveway, we look at some of the most unforgettable dates in Terrell Owens’ Hall of Fame career.

Inside the hit that defined Brian Dawkins’ Hall of Fame career
The safety’s vicious hit on tight end Alge Crumpler set the tone for the Eagles’ 2004 NFC title game win over the Falcons.

The night Urlacher’s HOF skills sparked wild comeback, epic rant
Brian Urlacher’s strip of Edgerrin James helped the Bears overcome a 23-3 third-quarter deficit in Arizona, prompting Dennis Green’s infamous tirade.

Guess who: How well do you know the HOF Class of 2018?
Who donated an unopened bottle of Orange Crush to the HOF museum? Who now has hair? Find out how well you know this year’s Hall of Fame class.

News, video and analysis: HOF Class of ’18

HOFer Dawkins credits wife for saving his life

Terrell Owens to give Hall of Fame speech at his college

Ray Lewis, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Brian Dawkins, Brian Urlacher among 2018 HOF class

Owens’ show-stopping careerTerrell Owens always caught the attention of fans whether it was incredible catches or antics after a touchdown.
Dawkins makes huge hit on Crumpler in 2004 NFC title gameBrian Dawkins connects with a massive hit on Alge Crumpler in the second quarter of the 2004 NFC Championship game.
Urlacher’s crucial strip on James in Bears’ comeback winBrian Urlacher strips Edgerrin James and Peanut Tillman returns it for a touchdown in a miraculous comeback win for Chicago.
Woody: T.O. earned right to relocate HOF speechDamien Woody breaks down why Terrell Owens deserves to make his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction speech wherever he chooses.

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Carolina Panthers announced the sale of the franchise to David Tepper has closed.
Tepper becomes only the second owner in team history. He started work on Monday.

Tepper, the founder and president of global hedge fund Appaloosa Management, L.P., bought the team from founder Jerry Richardson for $2.2 billion — the most ever paid for an NFL franchise. Richardson put the team up for sale in December after reports of sexual and racial misconduct in the workplace, which the league later confirmed .
Tepper said in a release Monday he’s thrilled to begin a “new era” in Carolina.
NFL owners approved of the sale to Tepper on May 22 at the spring meetings in Atlanta.
The Panthers also announced Tina Becker, who was appointed as COO by Richardson in December, has resigned.

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This story appears in the 2018 Body Issue. Subscribe to ESPN The Magazine today!

Behind the scenes at the Senior Bowl weigh-in, the moment of truth is at hand. It’s just after dawn on a Tuesday in late January, and already the massive South Exhibit Hall of the Mobile Convention Center in Alabama is packed with NFL personnel types, clipboards at the ready. Meanwhile, on the other side of the pageant-style stage, players are pacing around in the dark, in various stages of undress, when Titans scout Mike Boni pokes his head through the curtains to offer instructions about one of the most bizarre yet necessary events in sports.

As he speaks, the players try not to stare at the shiny metal carpenter’s square in Boni’s right hand. But they know that this simple tool Boni picked up for $6.99 at an Ace Hardware has measured the height of every NFL prospect since 2012 — and, unlike the players, it never lies. To be fair, yes, Boni has turned the carpenter’s square on himself. “Six-two,” he blurts proudly. But then, before the words have even left his mouth, Boni holds up a finger to wait, catching even himself in the kind of ubiquitous fib that this event was meant to combat. OK, well, he’s not exactly 6-foot-2, he confesses. He’s “six oh one seven,” scout-speak for 6-foot-1, which amounts to a difference of about half the thickness of your phone.

Boni is a stickler. And when it comes to extracting the truth from elite athletes about their height and weight, well, you have to be.

In the hyper-data era of sports, we are hurtling toward absolute precision and mathematical certainty, where we can gleefully quantify grand mysteries such as a third-string fullback’s fourth-quarter red zone yards after contact in temperatures above and below 55 degrees. Yet it is something of a delightful, rebellious quirk that the first critical bit of data we learn about elite athletes — their height and weight — is still, more often than not, a complete and utter fabrication.

“The secret little sin in sports nobody ever talks about,” says the legit 6-4 Rebecca Lobo, a 2017 inductee into the Basketball Hall of Fame and an ESPN analyst. “In sports, intimidation can be just as important as truth. If a little lie gives you that little extra mental edge, then it’s worth it. That’s the reason for all the fibbing — it works.”

Lying, after all, is a highly effective, innate part of the human condition that comes as easily, and almost as often, as breathing. And exaggerating our stature, one of the most common fibs of all, has been practically programmed into our brains by millions of years of evolution and sociology that reinforce the notion that taller, larger people are superior. That programming is exponentially more powerful in sports, where athletes often stretch the truth to fight back against ridiculous notions of ideal body prototypes, which exclude, say, NFL quarterbacks under 6 feet or diminutive hockey wingers.

Take Martin St. Louis, a right winger who retired in 2015 after 16 seasons and 391 goals and is a lock for the Hockey (and heightening) Hall of Fame.

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Starting at Vermont and throughout his NHL career, St. Louis says he would get officially measured at 5-7 every year at his team physical. And every year before the season opener, he’d glance at the game program and see himself listed at 5-9. “I don’t know if it was me seeing myself as being bigger than my actual number or if, at the time, in a big man’s game, I just had a better chance at making it as a 5-9 player than at 5-7 1/2,” he says. “Everyone’s trying to get an edge, and sometimes it’s with the tape measure. It’s a game of inches, right?”

It’s hard to judge athletes too harshly for heightening when their deceits are often encouraged and magnified by what sociologists call an ecology of enablers — parents, coaches, recruiters, trainers, agents, media — who benefit just as much from the tall tales. Which means almost every single person in sports is either lying about his or her height or lying about the lying. “It’s very peculiar and pathological,” says David Smith, a philosophy professor at the University of New England and the author of Why We Lie. “In sports it becomes an arms race where if everyone’s exaggerating, you kind of have to do it too just to keep up.”

Indeed, fibbing about height and weight is such a common, widespread and time-honored tradition in sports that it barely even registers as deception anymore. Most people dismiss it like a harmless embellishment on a résumé, a vestige of a simpler, less calculated time in sports. “Everybody in the world thinks they’re taller than they are,” Boni says. “So even with all that [advanced analytics and data], I don’t think we’ll get to the point where athletes will ever start telling the full truth, because this is a human nature thing more than a football thing.”

Elite athletes, and football players in particular, have turned manipulating their anthropometrics into an art form. Behind the stage at the Senior Bowl, empty gallon jugs of water are everywhere, guzzled by players trying to inflate their weight and perhaps their draft status. Several players are also doing last-second neck and back exercises because, according to Senior Bowl lore, that’s how Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson managed to taffy-stretch himself above 5-10 at this event in 2012. Boni and his fellow scouts are pretty sure they’ve seen it all: weights “hidden” in spandex shorts; orthotics in socks; even artificially enhanced man buns. And despite all his instructions and warnings, the first two players step onstage wearing flip-flops. “Come on, guys,” Boni says with a sigh. Later he adds, “Flip-flops … that was a new one, even for me.”

Boni has developed an intricate routine to safeguard every measurement. Players must place their heels together and their feet in a V, which makes it difficult to rise up on the toes or boost themselves off the wall. While talking guys through the process with the calm tone of a yoga instructor, Boni manipulates their head and chin into position. They fight him on this because it feels counterintuitive, but a level chin actually raises the crown of your head. And that’s where Boni places his trusty carpenter’s square. He pushes it like a lever back toward the chart on the wall and as soon as it goes flush, Boni barks out the player’s official height down to an eighth of an inch. For example, even though No. 1 draft pick Baker Mayfield is listed in the Oklahoma football program (and on as 6-1, his true height is 6003, or 6-0.

Each time Boni speaks, the sea of scouts nods in cultish unison to inscribe the data or breathlessly whisper it into tiny hand-held devices. Players, though, rarely like what they hear. Boni says 99 percent end up shorter than their program height. A few years ago, a wide receiver from the SEC was infuriated with Boni after he was informed he wasn’t actually 6-5 but instead barely 6-3. After guaranteeing everyone he’d hit 72 inches back in 2014, Johnny Manziel looked physically ill when Boni announced him at 5116 (5-11¾). “And he was not happy about it,” Boni says. “I always hear guys say, ‘Wait, but I’ve been 6-3 my whole life.’ Well, you might have been listed in media guides as 6-3 your whole life, but in the real world, sorry, you’re 6-1.”

This year, on the 56-man Senior Bowl North roster alone, 70 percent of the players are caught stretching the truth by more than half an inch in height or more than 5 pounds in weight. Almost 40 percent have lied by an inch or more in height and 10 pounds or more in weight. The fudging in Mobile is consistent with the sleight of hand going on across the sports landscape. In 2012, college hoops blog Run the Floor analyzed the data at the predraft Portsmouth Invitational Tournament and found that of the 62 players measured, 76 percent were at least an inch shorter than they claimed. Brett Brungardt, the founder of Seattle-based Basic Athletic Measurement, which collects anthropometrics for the NBA’s prospects and 16 other sports, says the heightening in basketball is so rampant that as soon as he sets up his equipment, “players literally run out of the gym.”

Not even the tallest, richest athletes on earth are immune to the universal desire to feel bigger. In 2016, The Wall Street Journal helped expose just how laughable the program heights can be in the NBA. Really, just pick a name of any “big” man in the league. Kevin Love? Dwight Howard? They’re both 2 inches shorter than they claim. In 2015, current Rockets forward Tarik Black was officially 6-11. The next season, he mysteriously shrank to 6-9. A college strength and conditioning coach for 25 years, Brungardt was so frustrated in 2008 by the lack of standard measurements in sports that he quit his job at the University of Washington to start BAM. One of his favorite players at UW was future NBA All-Star Nate Robinson, listed at 5-9. “On his very best day, if we stretched Nate and hung him upside down and put him in space gravity, he might have been 5-7 — maybe,” Brungardt says. (Robinson’s agent didn’t respond to a request for comment.) “Nate was one of the all-time greatest all-around athletes. So much heart and ability. But man, he still wanted to be 5-9 in that program so bad for some reason.”

Dallas guard J.J. Barea, who admits to being 5-10 on a good day, has to occasionally stop himself from giggling when he’s announced before games as being 6 feet “because me and about 20,000 other people in the arena knew that was a lie,” he told the Journal. The paper also uncovered the fact that 6-11 NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant is actually lying in reverse, shortening himself to 6-9 because he wants to be perceived as a small forward, not a power forward. It’s a trick he said he learned from Kevin Garnett.

In perhaps the truest statement ever spoken about lying in sports, Durant admitted that when he’s in basketball circles, he tells everyone he’s 6-9.

And when he’s talking to women?

“I’m 7 feet,” he says.
Baker Mayfield’s program listing might be a tad inflated, but that didn’t stop him from becoming the top overall pick. AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
Sports anthropometrics judge men by the unrealistic body standards we normally impose on women. Nancy Blaker, a professor in New Zealand who studies the connection between physical size and social status, has proved that men are far more likely than women to exaggerate their stature, mainly because the benefits of being perceived as bigger are typically greater for men. That seems to hold true in athletics as well. Rather than lie, short female athletes tend to just stand tall. Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson, the shootout hero of the gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic hockey team, puts it this way: “I am what I am, and adding an inch or 10 pounds isn’t going to make me more or less of an opponent.”

There’s still plenty of fibbing going on in women’s sports, though, if you know where to look. Former Mississippi State guard Morgan William, the star of the 2017 Final Four who ended UConn’s 111-game winning streak with a game-winning shot over 5-11 Gabby Williams, is still listed at 5-5. But when ESPN’s Holly Rowe, who is 5-3, recently pressed William on her height, she included this genius, ironclad disclaimer for William: Not what it says in the program, not what you think in your dreams, but what the number says in black and white on the chart when you go to the doctor’s office. “OK, yeah, I’m 5-foot-3,” William relented. “And a half!” Rowe and Lobo are also pretty sure that two-time WNBA MVP Candace Parker and a handful of other players are taller than their program heights. (Parker, when asked via text whether she was taller than 6-4, did not respond.) “The truth is important,” Lobo says, “but pretty much everyone knows the first measurement an athlete gives you is a lie. The number in the program seems to reflect the version of themselves that athletes wished they were.”

In 2012, before the WTA did away with publishing tennis players’ weights in their tour bios, Ben Rothenberg, in a piece for Slate, realized that at 6-2 and 130 pounds, Maria Sharapova would almost have the BMI of a Barbie Doll. “This is all probably because of your standard stereotype about women wanting to be smaller,” says Olympic hockey team captain Meghan Duggan. “Which I don’t necessarily agree with. Powerful, strong female athletes are incredible role models.”

Duggan admits to rounding up less than half an inch to her listed height of 5-10 simply because “those double digits just look nicer.” She is a part of a grand old tradition of heightening in hockey. In the NHL, rule changes have turned the game’s emphasis from power and size to speed and agility, creating even less incentive to lie. Yet so many people doubt Patrick Kane’s listed height of 5-11 that Google autocorrects inquiries on this subject directly to: How tall is Patrick Kane really. Setting up for a photo op at the White House in 2016, Sidney Crosby tried to join the “tall line” before a teammate told him to head “a couple of rows that way, Sid.” Crosby slumped away mumbling his program height. “I’m 5-11, boys, I’m 5-11.” Alex Ovechkin still claims to be the same size (6-3) as his countryman Evgeni Malkin even though he regularly ends up staring directly into Malkin’s chin when they meet on the ice. Last fall, when informed that the Capitals had listed him at 239 pounds in their training camp roster, Ovi chuckled and said “239? 259.” The Caps responded by doubling down and listing him as 235 in the media guide — a number that really should be adjusted to 279.5 to account for Ovi’s newest appendage, the Stanley Cup.

In Montreal, the Canadiens’ website features a video quiz called “Who Knows You Best?” which pits teammates against one another. In an episode from 2014, winger Brendan Gallagher (listed at 5-9) asks teammate Alex Galchenyuk, “How tall am I?”

The first thing Galchenyuk clarifies? The golden rule when inquiring about an elite athlete’s height: “ or real life?”

Real life, Gallagher says.

“Five ten point four,” Galchenyuk guesses.

“Generous, but no, 5-8½,” Gallagher admits with a slight wince.
Alex Ovechkin had some fun with his training camp listing ahead of his Stanley Cup-winning campaign with the Capitals. Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Halfway through the Senior Bowl weigh-in, the same kind of pained look unfurls across the face of Michigan linebacker Mike McCray. Listed at 6-4 his entire college career, McCray does a double take when Boni announces his actual height as barely 6-1. It’s the biggest fib by a linebacker anyone has heard since, well, since the year before, when Michigan linebacker Jabrill Peppers turned out to be 5-10, more than 2 inches shorter than the Wolverines claimed.

When asked to explain the discrepancies, Michigan spokesman David Ablauf concluded that the rest of the world must be off by 3 inches. “We use real measurements to determine these numbers coming from our medical and strength staffs,” Ablauf wrote in an email. “Also, we change heights and weights once a year in the fall to reflect changes made by lifting programs, nutritional adjustments and natural body changes for 18- to 22-year-old young men.”

McCray’s measurement inspires more than a few eye rolls in the audience, especially among those who have ever endured one of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s sermons about the importance of honesty. “You will have choices to make where a dishonest edge can be gained,” Harbaugh said during a 2015 commencement speech at Coronado High School in California. “And whatever gain is made will be undermined sometime down the road. As our dad told us flat out, never lie, it won’t be worth it.”

In sports, that might be the biggest lie of all.
When McCray first stepped on campus in Ann Arbor, he was simply told: “You’re 6-4.” “I’m not sure who decided I was 6-4,” he says, “but I can’t control what they put in the program.” McCray asked several times to have his height corrected, only to be told, “It is what it is.” Over time, though, he grew to enjoy being thought of as 6-4 and even convinced himself it was an acceptable embellishment because in his heart he knew he was taller than his dad, Mike McCray Sr., a linebacker and captain on the 1984 Ohio State team who was listed on the Buckeyes’ roster at 6-3. The only problem? Now an assistant high school principal in Ohio, Mike Sr. admits that he’s — wait for it — only 6-1 in real life. “When I have my cleats and helmet on and I’m feeling good, I do feel taller than I am,” Mike Jr. says after his first Senior Bowl practice. “What else can I say? I honestly don’t know what I’m going to say, but I’m sure teams will have questions about it.”

Less than five weeks later, a duly chastened McCray found out exactly how much the NFL worries about this kind of blatant heightening when he reported to the NFL combine in Indianapolis. Terrified that he had messed up his draft status, the first thing McCray did after checking in was look up his new official draft bio.

After a few anxious clicks, there it was, in big digits right at the top of the page, his new NFL-approved authentic height: 6-4.