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TEMPE, Ariz. — The pact was made during a practice in 2010.

Chandler Jones was a junior, the starting right defensive end for Syracuse, and Justin Pugh was a sophomore starting at left tackle. Every day, the two squared off, helping the other get better.

Neither, Pugh said, realized how good they were — or could be.

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During one practice that season, NFL scouts lined the sidelines at Manley Field House, Syracuse’s practice facility. Jones and Pugh, both years from the NFL, noticed.

“It would give us bright eyes, like, you know, one day we could be an NFL player,” Jones said. “I remember one day we looked at each other and I said, ‘You know, we’re going to go first round. Let’s make a pact and say you’re going to go first round, I’m going to go first round and we’ll call each other the first-round boys — FRB we used to call each other.”

Both came to Syracuse as two-star recruits. Jones was recruited as a tight end, according to Rivals.com. Pugh came to Syracuse “out of shape” which led to him getting nicknamed “Pugh-ny,” he said.

Two years after making that pact, Jones was drafted 21st overall by the New England Patriots. A year later, in 2013, Pugh went 19th to the New York Giants.

Both fulfilled their ends of the deal.

“We held true,” Pugh said.

But, even five years later, Pugh doesn’t let Jones forget who was selected higher.

“He’s always pushing that in my face,” Jones said.

Now, however, Pugh can give Jones a hard time about his draft position from the same locker room.

They were reunited when Pugh signed a five-year contract with the Arizona Cardinals on March 17 as a free agent.

In college, Jones and Pugh were “really close,” Jones said.

Their friendship, which began as teammates, grew as neighbors in Syracuse. Pugh and his roommate, former college teammate Zack Chibane, were “big chefs,” Jones said. They were “always” grilling meats and Jones would swing by to eat “all the time.”

And now Jones hopes he and Pugh can share more meals.

When Jones walked into the Cardinals’ practice facility at 6:20 a.m. for the first day of offseason workouts in early April, Pugh was already there. He told Jones his body was still on Eastern time, so his internal clock was three hours ahead.

“My face lit up, because that was my first time actually seeing him in Arizona,” Jones said. “Gave him a big hug and I was like, ‘Wow, we’re on the same team again.’

“I’m excited to see Justin. I’m excited to see him gel here in Arizona. I’ve been helping him with recommendations and places to live, so hopefully he can be my neighbor.”

Only as long as Pugh promises to get a grill.

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LAKELAND, Fla. — A leadership experiment of sorts is playing out in Florida, where two baseball managers separated by 15 years and 2,107 big league games are setting their rosters and lining up their pitching rotations in advance of Opening Day.

At Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Ron Gardenhire and the Detroit Tigers enter the season with modest expectations and a drastically reduced payroll. When the Tigers said goodbye to Justin Verlander, J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton and several other high-priced veterans, they officially forsook instant gratification for long-range thinking.

Drive 35 miles on Interstate 4 past the Florida Air Museum and a Bob Evans restaurant or three, and the stakes are higher. Aaron Boone, who has never managed a game at any level, is running a New York Yankees team that’s long on home run and star power. One day, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is rolling into camp for a week of batting practice and bonding with Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge. A few weeks later, Alex Rodriguez arrives and says the New York lineup has a chance to be “record-breaking and put up numbers we have not seen in a long time.”

Beyond the outfield fence on Dale Mabry Highway, a billboard features Judge’s likeness with the words “Breaking Expectations.” The honeymoon period for Boone officially ends with the Yankees’ Grapefruit League finale Sunday against Tampa Bay.

The Tigers are equally diligent in their spring training prep, but there’s a little more room for banter in the manager’s office. After a recent win over Atlanta, Gardenhire kicked back at his desk and mused about his batting order with the beat writers. Gardenhire is no statistical novice, and he gained a greater appreciation for the importance of advanced analytics as a bench coach under Torey Lovullo in Arizona last season. But he enjoys poking fun at the perception that he’s a stodgy old relic who’s destined to listen to his heart and his gut in the end.

“I haven’t even gotten any of the analytics yet,” he said. “They haven’t written me out one lineup yet on where they think all these people should go.”

And when they do?

“I’ll just kick them out and write out my lineup,” Gardenhire said. “Just kidding.”

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At Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, the slightest disruption can create a frenzy compounded by the number of media outlets following the team. A day after Gardenhire’s casual bull session, Boone met in the dugout with more than 20 media members looking for a shred of confirmation that the Yankees were about to sign free-agent infielder Neil Walker pending completion of a physical exam. Boone dusted off his two-strike approach while fending off one question after another in deference to general manager Brian Cashman.

“Cash is working through that,” Boone said multiple times. “We’ll see where we are at the end of the day.”

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At the end of the day, Walker passed his physical, and Boone was free to move on to Jacoby Ellsbury’s oblique injury, Clint Frazier’s post-concussion aftereffects and the other peripheral stories of spring. He says his biggest challenge so far is “time management,” and there’s no telling which issue will take him down a side road he had no plans to traverse.

Hiring trends are cyclical, and this year MLB teams are high on bright, young, malleable minds with a working knowledge of Statcast and weighted runs created plus. Boone, Boston’s Alex Cora, Washington’s Dave Martinez, the New York Mets’ Mickey Callaway and Philadelphia’s Gabe Kapler are former big leaguers who all landed jobs in major East Coast markets without a day of big league managerial experience. All but Kapler arrived with legitimate postseason aspirations — and the scrutiny on him ramped up a notch after the Phillies signed Jake Arrieta to a $75 million deal last week.

Cashman made a bold move in October when he decided not to retain manager Joe Girardi even though the Yankees surpassed expectations with 91 wins and a wild-card berth in 2017. Boone was sufficiently poised, confident and informed during the interview process for the Yankees to hire him fresh out of the ESPN broadcast booth — right after Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner expressed his concerns about having a novice in the dugout.

In spring training, Boone has shown the same people skills and self-assurance that helped him emerge from the pack during his interviews.

“He’s allowed it to be a seamless transition” Cashman said. “He’s a talented person and a great communicator. His demeanor is perfect for this type of environment.”

The Yankees enjoyed a 22-year run of stability with Joe Torre and Girardi as their only managers, and Cashman has seen an evolution in the relationship between a manager and the front office. For decades, front offices worked 12 months a year to scout, acquire and mold players before handing the roster over to the manager in February and telling him, “It’s all yours.” No more. It’s all about collaboration now.

“I’ve likened it to NASA and the space shuttle,” Cashman said. “We’ll pick the mission. We’re gonna get the trajectory. We’re going to hire an astronaut to fly that payload, and they’re going to stay in touch with us every single step of the way.

“We’re not connected to the dugout during games, so the manager’s job is to make moves to put the players in position to succeed. Pull the starter. Stay with the starter. Go with the reliever. Pinch hit. Hit and run. I think today’s generation recognizes that dynamic more. Today’s generation realizes it’s our job to put a laser-focused amount of quality information in front of the manager, and you want a manager who’s going to want it, cipher through it and disseminate it to your players in a way that they can understand it.”

In his personal sales pitch for the job, Boone stressed that he has been preparing for this opportunity his whole life as a product of a three-generation baseball family. His grandfather, Ray, and father, Bob, played a combined 32 years in the majors, and Aaron and his brother Bret grew up as ball rats with an inherent curiosity about the inner workings of the game.

Boone arrives in New York with a general framework in place on bunting, stealing bases, bullpen use and other tactical machinations. He plans to be flexible with his lineup cards and sees Judge as a nice fit for the No. 2 spot because of his .422 on-base percentage last season — those 208 strikeouts notwithstanding.

If events this spring have drummed home one thing, it’s the all-consuming nature of the manager’s job. Even when Boone leaves the park and he’s at dinner or watching an NCAA tournament game, a thought might pop into his head and prompt him to fire off a text to Cashman or one of his coaches.

“I’ve woken up many a middle-of-the-night this spring with thoughts,” Boone said. “I can’t tell you since I’ve had this job how many dreams I’ve had that have been very job-specific.”

Boone went through an embarrassing moment recently when reliever Adam Warren hadn’t warmed up properly because of a miscommunication, and Dellin Betances had to return from the clubhouse to face a batter. But his early outreach efforts appear to have played well in the clubhouse.

“He’s fit in nice,” Stanton said. “He doesn’t seem like a new guy. Spring training is a time to get your bearings, and I think he’s just prepping himself to be ready for the season. He’s been talkative. He’s been everything you would think of as a guy who’s done it before.”

Gardenhire, the congenial, avuncular guy in the managerial team photo, has struck a deft balance between fiery and approachable in 28 seasons as a coach and manager in the majors and minors. He led the Twins to six first-place finishes in the AL Central between 2002 and 2010 before subsequent seasons of 63, 66, 66 and 70 wins led to his firing in 2014. He underwent surgery to remove his prostate gland last spring after being diagnosed with prostate cancer before returning to Lovullo’s staff in May.

When Tigers GM Al Avila went looking for a successor to Brad Ausmus in October, he began with a list of 40 names and considered many of the hot young candidates before going with the proven commodity.

“The reason we ended up with Ron Gardenhire had nothing to do with old-school or new-school, analytics or nonanalytics,” Avila said. “We felt we wanted somebody with experience who has gone through some ups and downs. He’s had tremendous success and tremendous tribulation as far as rebuilding. That experience was important for me, because I knew we’re going to go through some rough stretches.

“I also wanted a strong leader. I talked to some players, and a lot of them went back to when Jim Leyland was our manager. They said to me, ‘We want a strong man who can discipline, but can also be fun and loose and have a good time.’ Gardy has done that.”
If events this spring have drummed home one thing, it’s the all-consuming nature of the manager’s job. Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports
Gardenhire isn’t averse to some time-honored motivational tactics. Before the Tigers reported to camp in Lakeland, Detroit Free Press reporter Anthony Fenech wrote a story with the headline, “The Detroit Tigers will stink in 2018; here’s why they’ll be fun to watch.” Shortly thereafter, copies of the story were hanging in each player’s locker, courtesy of the manager.

If Gardenhire is successful in Detroit, could he strike a blow for all those baseball lifers who’ve come to feel that experience is now devalued or even a deterrent to running a team? He doesn’t regard himself as a trendsetter.

“Baseball has definitely changed,” Gardenhire said. “There are a lot of young managers, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The game is evolving, and it’s been doing that since day one. An old guy like me, am I lucky I’ve got a job? I don’t know. I didn’t come searching for it. They came for me.

“It still comes down to the basics of it. If you stop learning, you might as well just go and retire. Call me old-school. I’m very proud of it. We’re old-school because we never stopped learning.”

Personnel dynamics are never as black and white as they appear. The Tigers have spent more than $2 million on upgrading their analytics and assembled a 12-person department essentially from scratch, so they’re not the dinosaurs they’ve been made out to be.

“We’ve caught up to the industry,” Avila said. “I’m not going to bring in a guy who’s not going to be using this information when I’m spending all this money and putting all this effort into it.”

Conversely, Cashman has drawn a line on interfering with the manager’s business, and he’s not about to cross it with Boone.

“I’ve never once directed a lineup in all my years,” Cashman said. “You can ask Joe Girardi or Joe Torre. It’s never happened once. What I do demand is that they keep those spigots open for information so they can close the gap on what they don’t know. If you have a close-minded individual, then you’ve got the wrong person in that chair.”

In spring training, it’s easy for everyone to have an open mind. The Tigers went old-school with a rebuilding club, and the Yankees picked a rookie to lead a team with massive expectations. Did the two teams choose wisely? They’ll have a better idea starting next week, when the shuttle prepares for liftoff.

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SEATTLE — The Seahawks plan to release DeShawn Shead in a procedural move but hope to re-sign the versatile defensive back and former starter.

The move, which is expected to happen on Monday, has nothing to do with the purge of veteran Seahawks defenders that has already claimed Richard Sherman, Michael Bennett and Jeremy Lane. Instead, the Seahawks are honoring the promise they made to Shead that he would become an unrestricted free agent.

Shead’s free-agent status had been in question after he spent all but two games of the past season on the physically unable to perform list while working his way back from a torn ACL. Per the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement, that would technically require Shead’s contract to toll, or to roll over to 2018 on the same terms.

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The tolling rule applies to players who, in the final season of their contract, remain on PUP as of their team’s sixth regular-season game. As in Shead’s case, that includes players on one-year deals. A restricted free agent last offseason, Shead signed a one-year deal worth $1.2 million. So if his contract were to toll, he’d be signed for 2018 at the same amount.

Shead’s agent, Cameron Foster, told ESPN that the NFL recently informed the Seahawks that Shead’s contract was going to toll. But general manager John Schneider had already assured Shead that he would be an unrestricted free agent.

“John Schneider called me saying they were going to release DeShawn on Monday because, per the league rule, it’s the NFL’s position that DeShawn’s contract is to toll,” Foster said. “But it’s our position, the NFL Players Association’s position and the Seattle Seahawks’ position that it does not toll. John had already informed DeShawn that his contract was expiring after this year, and the Seattle Seahawks are just living up to their word.

“They called me and they said, ‘Just giving you a heads up that we’re going to release DeShawn on Monday, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want him. That means we are living up to our word and we’re going to release him, otherwise his contract would be required to toll.’ So kudos to the Seahawks for doing the right thing. It’s them living up to their word, letting DeShawn test the free-agent world, but they have said they’d like to have him come back.”

Once released, Shead would be eligible to sign anywhere without having to wait until the start of free agency March 14. He already has a visit lined up with the Detroit Lions, according to Foster.

Shead, who turns 29 in June, started for a season and a half opposite Sherman at right cornerback before he tore his ACL in a playoff game in January 2017. He has experience at all five positions in Seattle’s secondary since the team signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2012. That includes one start at strong safety in 2015 while Kam Chancellor was holding out.

With Chancellor’s football future in jeopardy because of a career-threatening neck injury, the Seahawks have approached Shead about possibly playing strong safety next season.

“He’s such a versatile player, he’s played both for us,” coach Pete Carroll said last week at the scouting combine. “We’ll see what happens. We know he can play corner, and we like the way he plays at corner, but everything is open. I have not talked directly to him about that, but we have mentioned it to him.”

Cornerback has suddenly become a position of need for Seattle following Sherman’s release and that of Lane, which had been expected for some time. Byron Maxwell, who was brought back following Sherman’s season-ending Achilles injury, is also a free agent. Of the four cornerbacks the Seahawks have under contract for 2018, only one — 2017 rookie Shaquill Griffin — has started for Seattle.

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MINNEAPOLIS — Before his team faced the Chicago Bulls on Saturday night, Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau stressed the Timberwolves couldn’t replace injured star Jimmy Butler with a single player. To overcome his absence, they would need a collective effort.

For at least one game, the Wolves responded.

Jeff Teague scored 25 points, Andrew Wiggins added 23 and Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points and 13 rebounds for his NBA-leading 53rd double-double of the season in a 122-104 victory over Chicago.

Playing their first game since Butler injured his right knee during Friday night’s loss in Houston, the Timberwolves earned a much-needed win after a long day. They arrived home late in the morning, then learned Butler has a meniscus injury that will sideline him indefinitely.

The team is optimistic he will be able to return this season.

“The worst part was getting the news about Jimmy,” Teague said. “That’s our guy, man. He makes us go. He’s our engine and he’s our leader, so to see him go down, man, it’s always tough. But you know, we’ve got a lot of talented guys in this locker room. We’ve just got to step up and play together and still try to collect some wins.”

Taj Gibson had 19 points and 10 rebounds for Minnesota. Jamal Crawford also scored 19 off the bench, including three 3-pointers that keyed a 16-2 spurt to open the fourth quarter and put the Timberwolves comfortably ahead for good.

“We needed everyone and everyone stepped up,” Thibodeau said.

The Wolves had little trouble on offense without their leading scorer. They certainly missed him early on defense, though. Zach LaVine scored 21 to lead the Bulls in his return to Target Center since the blockbuster offseason trade that sent Butler to Minnesota.

Chicago trailed by as many as 12 early, but LaVine hit some timely buckets and the Bulls’ bench outscored Minnesota’s reserves 24-7 in the first half. The Bulls looked to be in prime position to sweep the season series after a one-point win in Chicago on Feb. 9.

“That second quarter was a thing of beauty,” coach Fred Hoiberg said. “We got stops. We were pushing it down the floor.”

Chicago led by five in the third quarter before Minnesota used an 18-11 run to regain the lead heading into the fourth.

“I think this is the recipe, because like I said, you have guys who have big nights on particular nights,” Crawford said. “But overall, something that’s sustainable, I think it has to be a collection of guys, and I think this is hopefully a look at what it can look like.”

AGELESS CRAWFORD

A historically streaky shooter, the 37-year-old Crawford went 3 for 5 for 11 points in the fourth quarter alone, bringing the crowd to its feet with his long-range shooting. “He’s still playing like he’s 22 years old,” Hoiberg said. “He was playing by himself out there for a while. When he gets rolling, he’s a hard guy to stop.”

WELCOME BACK

The crowd gave LaVine a warm welcome when he was announced in the starting lineup. LaVine played three seasons in Minnesota, wowing fans with his electrifying dunks. He matched up against his former teammate in Wiggins on Saturday, and also was rejected a couple of times by Towns. “For sure, that just felt like practice. That’s what it was, talking a little bit,” LaVine said.

TIP-INS

 

Bulls: Former Wolves draft pick Kris Dunn had 10 points in his return to Minnesota. … F Paul Zipser sat out with a left foot injury sustained Thursday against Philadelphia. He left that game after only seven minutes and didn’t practice on Friday. … Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday were inactive again in favor of getting more time for younger players. Hoiberg said he does expect to get the two veterans back into the mix. “They’re still active in practice, and right now the big thing for us is getting a look at some of the younger guys that haven’t gotten a lot of minutes,” Hoiberg said.

Timberwolves: Teague has scored at least 15 points in four straight games. … Towns didn’t have a field goal or rebound in the first quarter. … The Wolves announced their 11th sellout of the season. … Minnesota wrapped up the 11th of 15 back-to-back sets this season.

UP NEXT

Bulls: Visit the Brooklyn Nets on Monday night.

Timberwolves: At the Sacramento Kings on Monday night.

For more AP NBA coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Check out the team sites for the Chicago Bulls and the Minnesota Timberwolves for more game coverage.

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Click here for points-league rankings and reaction.
Read below for roto-league rankings and reaction.
You know what happens when a top-tier fantasy player puts together the kind of night DeMarcus Cousins had on Monday, when he erupted for 44 points, 24 rebounds, 10 assists, four steals, five 3-pointers and a block against Chicago?

He moves up to the top of the rankings, that’s what.
Recently I called Cousins the most fun player to have on your fantasy team this season, and what he showed against the Bulls is the reason why — not only is he a terrific scorer and rebounder, but these days he’s also a big-time passer, 3-point shooter, shot-blocker and steals contributor.

Nobody else in the game hits on all those categories to the degree that Cousins has this season — not James Harden, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant — and after a performance like that it’s impossible to rank Cousins anywhere but No. 1 this week.

Harden moves back up to No. 2, one spot ahead of Antetokounmpo, while James and Durant round out the top five.

Russell Westbrook (9) and Damian Lillard (13) make small moves up the rankings after big weeks, while Jrue Holiday (21), Andre Drummond (24), Hassan Whiteside (25), Devin Booker (27) and Rudy Gobert (28) are other notable risers inside the top 30 this week.

Four double-doubles in a row by Steven Adams (61) moves him way up the board, while fellow centers Jusuf Nurkic (64) and Dwight Howard (65) also rise after big weeks.

Kawhi Leonard leads the list of notables to slide in the rankings, dropping to No. 82 as he is again out indefinitely with the same rare tendon issue in his quad that kept him sidelined for the first two-plus months of the season.

The scoring-centric game of Avery Bradley drops him down to No. 130, while Serge Ibaka (110) and Zach Randolph (135) are two other veterans to rank lower after diminished play of late. With the Kings going toward a youth movement midseason, Randolph is in danger of sliding out of the top 150 entirely if his minutes continue to wane over the final part of the season.

New to the list this week are Memphis swingman Dillon Brooks (126), San Antonio’s point-forward Kyle Anderson (127) — who has seven steals and six blocks in the past two games — along with Atlanta center Dewayne Dedmon (137), returning Brooklyn playmaker D’Angelo Russell (147) and rising Portland guard Shabazz Napier (149).

Here is the full list of the updated Top 150:

Top 150 Fantasy Basketball Rankings: Roto Scoring
RANK, PLAYER, POSITION(S) TEAM POS RANK
1. DeMarcus Cousins, PF/C NO C1
2. James Harden, PG/SG HOU SG1
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, SF/PF MIL SF1
4. LeBron James, SF/PF CLE SF2
5. Kevin Durant, SF/PF GS SF3
6. Anthony Davis, PF/C NO PF1
7. Karl-Anthony Towns, C MIN C2
8. Jimmy Butler, SG/SF MIN SG2
9. Russell Westbrook, PG OKC PG1
10. Stephen Curry, PG GS PG2
11. Chris Paul, PG HOU PG3
12. Victor Oladipo, SG IND SG3
13. Damian Lillard, PG POR PG4
14. Kristaps Porzingis, PF NY PF2
15. Kyrie Irving, PG BOS PG5
16. Draymond Green, SF/PF/C GS SF4
17. Nikola Jokic, PF/C DEN PF3
18. Klay Thompson, SG GS SG4
19. John Wall, PG WAS PG6
20. Paul George, SF OKC SF5
21. Jrue Holiday, PG NO PG7
22. Joel Embiid, C PHI C3
23. Marc Gasol, C MEM C4
24. Andre Drummond, C DET C5
25. Hassan Whiteside, PF/C MIA PF4
26. Khris Middleton, SG/SF MIL SF6
27. Devin Booker, SG PHX SG5
28. Rudy Gobert, C UTA C6
29. DeMar DeRozan, SG TOR SG6
30. Al Horford, C BOS C7
31. Kemba Walker, PG CHA PG8
32. CJ McCollum, PG/SG POR PG9
33. Bradley Beal, SG WAS SG7
34. Lou Williams, PG/SG LAC PG10
35. LaMarcus Aldridge, PF SA PF5
36. Kyle Lowry, PG TOR PG11
37. Lauri Markkanen, PF CHI PF6
38. Ben Simmons, PG/PF PHI PF7
39. Isaiah Thomas, PG CLE PG12
40. Blake Griffin, PF LAC PF8
41. Aaron Gordon, SF/PF ORL PF9
42. Tyreke Evans, SG/SF MEM SF7
43. Donovan Mitchell, SG UTA SG8
44. Kris Dunn, PG CHI PG13
45. Gary Harris, SG DEN SG9
46. Kevin Love, PF/C CLE PF10
47. Myles Turner, PF IND PF11
48. Eric Bledsoe, PG MIL PG14
49. Enes Kanter, C NY C8
50. Clint Capela, C HOU C9
51. Dennis Schroder, PG ATL PG15
52. Kent Bazemore, SG/SF ATL SG10
53. Jayson Tatum, SF/PF BOS SF8
54. Robert Covington, SF/PF PHI PF12
55. Thaddeus Young, SF/PF IND SF9
56. Otto Porter Jr., SF/PF WAS SF10
57. DeAndre Jordan, C LAC C10
58. Nikola Mirotic, PF CHI PF13
59. Tobias Harris, SF/PF DET PF14
60. Harrison Barnes, SF DAL SF11
61. Steven Adams, C OKC C11
62. Jeff Teague, PG MIN PG16
63. Zach LaVine, PG/SG CHI PG17
64. Jusuf Nurkic, PF/C POR PF15
65. Dwight Howard, C CHA C12
66. Goran Dragic, PG MIA PG18
67. Dario Saric, SF/PF PHI SF12
68. Jamal Murray, PG DEN PG19
69. Evan Fournier, SG/SF ORL SG11
70. Will Barton, SG/SF DEN SG12
71. Eric Gordon, SG HOU SG13
72. Darren Collison, PG IND PG20
73. Taj Gibson, PF/C MIN PF16
74. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, SF BKN SF13
75. Josh Richardson, SG/SF MIA SG14
76. Spencer Dinwiddie, PG BKN PG21
77. Dennis Smith Jr., PG/SG DAL PG22
78. TJ Warren, SF PHX SF14
79. Julius Randle, PF/C LAL PF17
80. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, SG LAL SG15
81. Kyle Kuzma, SF/PF LAL PF18
82. Kawhi Leonard, SF SA SF15
83. Wesley Matthews, SG DAL SG16
84. Caris LeVert, SG/SF/PF BKN PF19
85. Carmelo Anthony, SF/PF OKC SF16
86. Taurean Prince, SF ATL SF17
87. Joe Ingles, SG/SF/PF UTA PF20
88. Lonzo Ball, PG LAL PG23
89. Andrew Wiggins, SG/SF MIN SG17
90. Pau Gasol, PF/C SA PF21
91. Malcolm Brogdon, PG/SG MIL SG18
92. Courtney Lee, SG NY SG19
93. Nicolas Batum, SG/SF CHA SF18
94. Bismack Biyombo, C ORL C13
95. James Johnson, SF MIA SF19
96. E’Twaun Moore, SG NO SG20
97. Ricky Rubio, PG UTA PG24
98. Trevor Ariza, SF HOU SF20
99. Larry Nance Jr., PF LAL PF22
100. Elfrid Payton, PG ORL PG25
101. Domantas Sabonis, PF/C IND PF23
102. Willie Cauley-Stein, C SAC C14
103. Brandon Ingram, SF LAL SF21
104. Rajon Rondo, PG NO PG26
105. Dirk Nowitzki, PF/C DAL PF24
106. Tim Hardaway Jr., SG NY SG21
107. Michael Beasley, SF/PF NY SF22
108. Robin Lopez, C CHI C15
109. De’Aaron Fox, PG SAC PG27
110. Serge Ibaka, PF/C TOR PF25
111. Ish Smith, PG DET PG28
112. Derrick Favors, PF UTA PF26
113. Nikola Vucevic, C ORL C16
114. Bojan Bogdanovic, SG/SF IND SG22
115. Marcin Gortat, C WAS C17
116. Trey Lyles, PF DEN PF27
117. Jaylen Brown, SG/SF BOS SG23
118. Marvin Williams, SF CHA SF23
119. Tyrone Wallace, SG LAC SG24
120. Kelly Olynyk, C MIA C18
121. Justin Holiday, SG/SF CHI SG25
122. Allen Crabbe, SG BKN SG26
123. Kelly Oubre Jr., SF WAS SF24
124. DeMarre Carroll, SF/PF BKN SF25
125. Jarrett Jack, PG NY PG29
126. Dillon Brooks, SG/SF MEM SF26
127. Kyle Anderson, PF SA PF28
128. Markieff Morris, PF WAS PF29
129. Jonas Valanciunas, C TOR C19
130. Avery Bradley, SG DET SG27
131. Ryan Anderson, PF HOU PF30
132. Bogdan Bogdanovic, SG/SF SAC SG28
133. Denzel Valentine, SG/SF CHI SG29
134. Jeremy Lamb, SG/SF CHA SG30
135. Zach Randolph, PF SAC PF31
136. Lance Stephenson, SG/SF IND SG31
137. Dewayne Dedmon, C ATL C20
138. Dwyane Wade, SG/SF CLE SG32
139. Brook Lopez, C LAL C21
140. Al-Farouq Aminu, SF/PF POR SF27
141. Dejounte Murray, PG/SG SA SG33
142. Bobby Portis, PF CHI PF32
143. Marcus Smart, PG/SG BOS PG30
144. Mason Plumlee, PF/C DEN PF33
145. Buddy Hield, SG/SF SAC SG34
146. John Collins, PF/C ATL PF34
147. D’Angelo Russell, PG BKN PG31
148. Wayne Ellington, SG MIA SG35
149. Shabazz Napier, PG/SG POR PG32
150. Jordan Clarkson, PG LAL PG33

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This will be a memorable year in the life of Manny Machado. Sometime in 2018, the Baltimore Orioles will probably trade him to a World Series contender and give him the same opportunity that Justin Verlander had after landing with the Houston Astros. Then Machado will become a free agent in November and sometime before the new year, he will begin to field offers for tens of millions of dollars — or maybe even hundreds of millions. He will be rewarded for all of the work that he put in as a kid and in his years with the Orioles, all of that time he spent in rehabilitation from two serious knee injuries.

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But the return on his investment in himself may not max out unless Machado digs in and performs more consistently. In order to get the sort of record-setting contract he could pursue, Machado needs to have a strong launch year into the open market, as an on-field response to some of the questions that executives have about him — heard as we prepared our top-10 list of third basemen.

“To be honest, he looks bored sometimes,” said one evaluator.

Said another: “I think he needs a different challenge.”

Alex Rodriguez was Machado’s idol when he was growing up as a kid in Miami, and the comparisons between the two as players are natural because they were raised in the same area, as wildly talented, thriving power-hitting infielders. But there seems to be one enormous and important difference between Alex Rodriguez and Machado.

Throughout A-Rod’s career, nobody ever questioned his focus. Ever. Potential investors viewed Rodriguez as someone of superlative skill and total commitment, someone who would do whatever he needed to do daily to be great. That helped him land two record-setting contracts — his $252 million deal with the Rangers, which he opted out of to negotiate a $275 million monster with the Yankees.

Last year was a challenge for Machado, for sure. Early in the year, he was at the center of the Orioles’ beanball stuff with the Red Sox after colliding with Dustin Pedroia on a slide. The Orioles had the worst rotation in the majors and for the Baltimore position players, there must’ve been a Groundhog Day feel to the season: By the fourth or fifth inning on most days, Machado and the other position players would be staring at an early deficit of three or four runs. By September, the Orioles sometimes looked like the walking dead, Machado among them.

This was reflected in the feedback of evaluators solicited for their rankings of the top 10 third basemen. For some, Machado was listed fourth or fifth or even sixth, with caveats. At his best, they believe, he is the most talented defender at the position, and capable of big offensive numbers — but that he sometimes will drift through days or weeks, particularly in the way he works through his plate appearances. His production in 2017 was remarkably erratic.

Machado’s OPS by month

April .767

May .629

June .759

July .870

August 1.039

September .537

 

He finished with a .259 average and a .310 on-base percentage, and as ESPN Researcher Paul Hembekides notes, his performance outside of hitter-friendly Camden Yards was flat-out awful last season — a .268 on-base percentage in 336 plate appearances, with an Adjusted OPS+ of 80, well below major league average.

He’s going to get a great contract and make more money than almost all of his peers, because of how special a defender he is, whether he’s at shortstop (where the Orioles are expected to play him this year) or at third base. But Machado could help himself by being more consistent, in a sport that probably values that trait — and compensates for it — more than any other.

Our top-10 list of third basemen, which is based on the input of evaluators and the insight and data generated by ESPN’s Paul Hembekides, Sarah Langs and Mark Simon. And of all the tasks in this series, trying to rank the third basemen is the most impossible.

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Beating the Pittsburgh Steelers has paid off for Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles in more ways than one.

Cincinnati Bengals fans have been donating money to the Blake Bortles Foundation as a way to say thank you for the Jaguars’ 45-42 victory last Sunday, which knocked one of the Bengals’ biggest rivals out of the playoffs. According to the Blake Bortles Foundation, more than 100 fans have donated close to $5,000 since the game ended.

“Fans are at the core of the football experience and it’s truly exciting and rewarding when they band together, regardless of the team they cheer for, to make a positive impact in the lives of others,” Bortles said in a statement. “I greatly appreciate the support displayed by Bengals fans and they should know their support will make a difference.”

Bortles threw for 214 yards and a touchdown and led two critical fourth-quarter touchdown drives. His touchdown pass was a 14-yarder to fullback Tommy Bohanon, which came on a play that Bortles checked to at the line of scrimmage.

According to the foundation, Cincinnati sports radio host Mo Egger encouraged Bengals fans to donate as a way to pay it forward. Buffalo Bills fans donated more than $300,000 to Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton’s foundation (The Andy & Jordan Dalton Foundation) in appreciation of the Bengal’s Week 17 victory over Baltimore, which gave the Bills a playoff berth for the first time since 1999.

Dalton threw a 49-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd to give the Bengals the victory over the Ravens.

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Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert will have his left knee reevaluated in two weeks after suffering a strained posterior cruciate ligament and a bone bruise two weeks ago in Boston, the team announced.

Gobert was checked on Saturday by the Jazz medical staff and is showing progress to make a return.

He suffered the injury during a 107-95 victory over the Boston Celtics on Dec. 15, going to the floor awkwardly after appearing to get rolled into by teammate Derrick Favors early in the first quarter. As he tried to get back to his feet, Gobert fell back to the floor and rolled to his back before clutching his left knee.

Gobert had been expected to miss three to four weeks.

Gobert missed 11 games earlier this season with a bone bruise in his right knee.

The 2017 All-NBA second-team center is averaging 11.6 points, 9.6 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game in his fifth NBA season.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Chris Forsberg contributed to this report.

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Cooper Kupp once again showed his uncanny resolve on Sunday, in a win that clinched his franchise’s first division title since 2003.

Early in the fourth quarter, the Los Angeles Rams rookie slot receiver dropped an easy third-down catch that would’ve extended a drive and instead paved the way for the Tennessee Titans’ go-ahead field goal. It was a major momentum swing, a letdown in a game with very little margin for error.

But Kupp bounced back.
Cooper Kupp’s game-winning touchdown reception on Sunday was just the latest bounce-back play for the rookie receiver. Wesley Hitt/Getty Images
When the Rams drove up the field again, he ran a fade route, dove in the corner of the end zone and got his knee down before going out of bounds to haul in a third-down catch that resulted in the game-winning touchdown of a 27-23 victory.

“I’m not shocked by it — just his demeanor, the way he is,” quarterback Jared Goff said of Kupp’s ability to bounce back.

“Football is a game where you’ve got to be able to respond to adversity whenever you face it, and he’s continued to demonstrate the ability to do that throughout the course of the season,” coach Sean McVay added. “You really see the maturity for a rookie. That’s pretty rare.”

Kupp, 24, leads NFL rookies with 869 receiving yards. But he has also had to respond to adversity. He failed to come up with the game-winning touchdown — granted, on a diving attempt — in the final seconds of a Week 5 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, but he compiled 15 catches for 187 yards in an ensuing four-game winning streak. He fumbled near the end zone in a Week 11 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, but he compiled 116 receiving yards in a win against the New Orleans Saints the following week.

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He made a key drop against the Titans, then scored a key touchdown.
“That’s kind of how the season has gone,” Kupp said. “I’ve had moments when I’ve had to bounce back. It’s unfortunate, but you just don’t have time to kind of sit there and stew on things. You have to flush them out, move on. I thought that game was almost a reflection of what this year has kind of been for me. Just plays I feel like I should make. Simple things.”

Kupp had five drops this season, three shy of the NFL lead, according to ESPN Stats & Information. His drop rate of 5.3 percent is appreciably higher than the NFL average of 3.5 percent. But the third-round pick out of Eastern Washington also has been highly productive, making 62 catches, scoring five touchdowns and hauling in 66 percent of his targets, third among rookie receivers. Kupp’s 23 third-down receptions are tied for the 11th most in the NFL, even though he’s on a team with Todd Gurley and a plethora of other receiving options.

Kupp has exceeded any reasonable expectations, but there are elements of his rookie season that he is clearly dissatisfied with. “My expectations for myself are higher,” Kupp said. “I want to be making those plays. That’s never going to change, regardless of what kind of season I’m having. I’m a competitor, and there’s always some plays I’m going to look back on and want to have back.”

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Tom Brady sits as the clear-cut leader to run away with MVP honors for 2017. Barring another season-altering injury, can anyone challenge the New England Patriots quarterback?

Injuries to Carson Wentz, Aaron Rodgers, and Antonio Brown have wiped away those who appeared to have a shot at derailing the 40-year-old quarterback from earning his third NFL MVP award. Inconsistencies have also taken the likes of Russell Wilson and Phillip Rivers out of the conversation.
To fill the void in a debate-frenzied world, the next nominee with a chance to stop Brady from strolling to the MVP throne seems clear after Sunday: Todd Gurley.

The Los Angeles Rams running back dominated the Seattle Seahawks, dashing for 153 rushing yards, 28 receiving yards, and four total touchdowns. Oh, and he did all that despite participating in just nine second-half plays in Sunday’s 42-7 blowout.

As the best player on the NFL’s highest-scoring offense, Gurley’s MVP campaign could just be heating up. The third-year running back certainly has his coach’s vote.

“I’m obviously going to be biased to Todd, but I think if you just look at it from a production standpoint, he’s as productive as any player,” Sean McVay said Monday, via the L.A. Daily News.

If Gurley’s turnaround from a disastrous 2016 campaign (during which he trashed the Rams offense as ‘ middle school’) doesn’t end with an MVP trophy, it could lead to a Comeback Player of the Year award. Gurley’s performance should also help McVay run away with Coach of the Year honors.

“He’s certainly a special player,” McVay said. “With Todd’s success, that is a reflection of our offensive unit, but I think it’s a great honor for him. I think he certainly has put himself into legitimate (MVP) conversations with that, just based on the production and what he has meant to our team.”
The superlatives on Gurley are long after Sunday’s performance — the NFL Research team had two-and-a-half pages of notes on the running back in the post-Week 15 packet.

Gurley ranks first in the NFL in rushing TDs (13) and scrimmage TDs (17), second in scrimmage yards (1,817), third in rushing yards (1,187), and second among running backs in receiving yards (630). Gurley is the only player to score three-plus scrimmage TDs in multiple games (2) this season.

Gurley has just 32 fewer scrimmage yards than Le’Veon Bell on 76 fewer touches. Of the three running backs with 250-plus carries (Bell, LeSean McCoy, Gurley), the Rams’ rusher is averaging half a yard better per rush (Gurley: 4.6; McCoy: 4.1; Bell: 4.0).

If player grades happen to be your cup of tea, Pro Football Focus ranks Gurley as their top overall running back this season. If you’d rather dissect influencing victories ratios: The Rams are 8-0 when he touches the ball 20-plus times and 2-4 when he comes short of that number.

Perhaps still a longshot to leapfrog Brady, the fact that Gurley deserves to be in the MVP conversation in 2017 given where he and the Rams were one year ago is mind-bending. Thank you, Sean McVay, for helping unleash a talented back after your predecessors failed miserably. The viewing public owes you a debt of gratitude.